In Idaho, an Ambitious Experiment Offers Parents Grants for Tutoring, Connectivity, Devices

Staff Writer

Idaho is taking an unusual approach when it comes to addressing two urgent issues that states face — improving connectivity and addressing unfinished learning.

Through a new program, state funding will be funneled directly to families to help pay for things like tutoring, computers, and internet connectivity.

Lawmakers approved the microgrants earlier this year, allocating $50 million of the state’s federal COVID relief money to be distributed to families of public and non-public K-12 students. Known as the Empowering Parents program, the grants are worth $1,000 per child and up to $3,000 per family.

“Priority for [Idaho] is to have kids college and career ready,” Republican Gov. Brad Little told EdWeek Market Brief in an interview. “We looked at what we’ve been doing in the past and how do we make it better.”

The governor added that, “anything we can do to get people into the tutoring business [and] have really quality, move-the-needle education — we’re very interested in.”

A number of states, including Texas and Arkansas, have rolled out statewide tutoring programs to help students with academic recovery, efforts that have been supported with federal COVID aid.

Idaho’s program is a novel idea for a state government, which more typically funds education by allocating money to schools or statewide programs. But it comes after pandemic-era remote learning exposed students to the vast number of online supplemental resources and forced many parents to take a more active role in their child’s education.

And it could signal a coming trend as states across the country scramble to build up broadband infrastructure and improve student outcomes — one that would open a new door for companies working in the K-12 space to market directly to parents.

“That’s really where I see more and more states going,” said Joseph Connor, founder and CEO of Odyssey (formerly Agora), which was contracted by the state to build an online portal for the microgrant program.

“There is an increase in demand for alternative education. Now [students] want to be able to go to the local public school, but also go to a tutor nearby after school to help them with their math, or they want to go to the STEM program that’s down the street.”

Launching the Program

Applications for the grants are set to open this month, first prioritizing households earning $60,000 per year or less.

The state is working with Odyssey to build a marketplace of resources that parents can use, with a focus on gathering contact information for quality local vendors in addition to more well-known national providers, Connor said.

While eligible parents will be able to choose how they spend the money, there are some limitations. Notably, the funds can not be spent on private school tuition, which separates the program from controversial voucher programs in other states, which allow families to use state funding for tuition at private schools, including religious schools.

Those guardrails were missing the first time Idaho tried this kind of program in 2020, said Rep. Sally Toone, a Democrat who is the state’s House minority caucus chair.

During the pandemic, the state allocated $50 million in federal relief money to the Strong Families, Strong Students program, which distributed grants for education-related services to around 46,000 students statewide and served as a model for Empowering Parents. Monitoring how the money was used and collecting receipts from families was quickly overwhelming for the state’s education department, Toone said.

Toone, a Democrat and former school teacher, supported the new program with the parameters on how the funding is used, but said she’d be concerned if this becomes a long-term initiative or solution that the state pursues.

“I look at, what does our educational system need?” she said. “And it really is a little bit thinking out of the box. But COVID forced us to think out of the box.”

The lawmaker is curious on how families will use the grants. “There’s a limited amount of funds,” she said. “So time will tell for us.”

Question of Quality

It remains to be seen whether this program is an effective way to meet the state’s goal of improving student outcomes.

There’s reason to be skeptical of the program’s impact on learning, said Nancy Madden, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education and CEO of the Success for All Foundation, which develops and researches educational programs.

Her research has found that high-dosage tutoring baked into the academic day is the most effective method, rather than intermittent tutoring before or after school. A better approach would be to allocate the state’s share of federal emergency aid to intensive, school-based tutoring, Madden said.

“The reality is they’re offering a small amount of money to parents who are going to have a tough time using it in any systematic way to help their kids,” she said.

But Little, whose administration created the Empowering Parents program, and other backers of the measure say that by directing grants to families, the state is able to assist students it might not otherwise reach. He pointed to students who are homeschooled, a population that has grown nationwide and in Idaho since the start of the pandemic.

Madden questioned whether that the amount of time and effort required of families to secure grants will likely result in the money not being spread equitably among families.

“You’re going to serve the kids who already have a lot of parents support,” she said. “And often the kids that have the most need have families who are struggling financially with food and aren’t thinking about that kind of issue.”

Looking Forward

Little said it’s possible that that some form of the grant program could outlive federal relief dollars. The program would have to compete with other priorities in the state’s budget.

When it comes to how to move forward with education and leverage online resources post-remote learning, Little said, “My fellow governors and all the states are learning about what works best.”

Connor, from Odyssey, said his team expects that there’s enough demand among families for applications to outstrip available grants. 

“This will be another way for parents to afford some of those things that previously they had to pay out of pocket,” he said. “It makes sense for businesses to look into these programs and follow them closely.”

Photo of Idaho Gov. Brad Little on May 17, 2022 by Kyle Green/AP 

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