The Idaho Parents Commission opposes the use of grants for private school tuition

This story was originally published on on September 11, 2023.

One advisory committee does not want to expand the Parent Empowerment Program to include private school tuition and fees.

Although Monday’s vote is nonbinding, it heralds a debate over school choice that seems almost certain to resurface during the 2024 legislative session. The outcome of that debate could lead to a reshaping of the Parent Empowerment Program, a popular program that provides small grants Funded by taxpayers to cover out-of-pocket educational costs.

Until now, most of this money has paid for Internet access, computers or educational materials in classrooms. Over most of the summer, a parent advisory committee considered modifications to the program — both addressing problems that have plagued the rollout and looking for ways to give parents more choices about how to spend their share of the money.

Committee discussion Monday returned to the issue of private school tuition. The committee’s deliberations mirrored the debate that took place in the House of Representatives this year.

Nampa mother Amy Henry argued for expanding the program. Henry, a former public school teacher, said she supports public education — but she also said she pulled her daughter out of public school out of fear for her safety. Subsidizing private school tuition is simply a matter of letting taxpayers decide how best to spend their money.

“It’s taxpayer money, not public money,” Henry said.

Idaho Falls teacher Laura Melton and Marsing School Trustee Jason Seavey argued against the idea — saying a tuition or fee credit is nothing more than a tax voucher.

“This is not a voucher program, this is a grant program for families,” Melton said.

A small grant to empower parents — perhaps $1,000 per student — would not make a significant dent in private school costs, said committee member Holly Cook of Boise.

Noting the impasse the 2023 Legislature is in on the issue, Sandpoint parent Barbara Schreiber urged the committee to stay in its course. “It’s not the role of seven parents to review something that goes back to the Legislature.”

The Idaho State Board of Education will get the next say on the Parent Empowerment Program

In March, the Senate passed a bill to merge the $12 million tuition and fees program into the Parent Empowerment Program — a pilot program to provide grants of up to $2,000 to 6,000 families. The House Education Committee never took up the proposal.

The committee voted against recommending this expansion by a majority of 4-2, with one committee member absent.

Even before the Legislature considers the idea of ​​tuition, the State Board of Education has the next say.

All of the committee’s recommendations go to the Council of State, which will work in October.

During a wide-ranging three-hour meeting on Monday, the committee addressed a variety of recommendations:

  • In a split vote, the commission said the state should allow homeschooling parents to use small grant funds for educational co-ops. Parents use these co-ops part-time to supplement their children’s homeschooling, but the programs are often expensive, Henry said.
  • The committee voted to recommend several new purchases – covering camps and educational classes; Backpacks, computer cases and other school supplies; Uniforms and athletic fees paid. Camps and classes have never been eligible for Parent Empowerment funds. But some other elements fell into a bit of a gray area, as they were not mentioned in the program guidelines. The state board asked the Parents Committee to make recommendations on expanding the list of eligible purchases.
  • The committee recommended changes to the way parents can divide their share of grant dollars. The current program allows grants of up to $1,000 per K-12 student, or $3,000 per family. The committee wants to give parents more flexibility to spend this money, but it was not immediately clear how spending limits might change.
  • The committee also had some recommendations for Primary Class, or Odyssey, the state’s beleaguered parent empowerment contractor. The commission said Odyssey needed to improve its communications with sellers in the online marketplace. The committee also wants Odyssey to create a rating system, so parents can rate vendors.

The recommendations — and potential debate over school choice — come at a time when empowering parents is at a crossroads.

Originally funded with $50 million in federal coronavirus aid, the Parent Empowerment Program will now receive $30 million annually in state funds. This spring, an internal State Council audit uncovered $180,000 worth of improper purchases, and thousands more that may or may not have been appropriate. Gov. Brad Little ordered a third-party audit.

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