BOISE - Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s latest campaign ad touts the Opportunity Scholarship Fund, which he says helps Idaho students in the current “tough economic times,” but doesn’t mention that no new students have been able to apply for the scholarship for the past two years, due to lack of funds.
Only renewals for those whose scholarships started three years ago currently are being funded. About 450 students are getting the scholarships now, down from about 700 when it started.
Otter pushed for and helped establish the fund, which provides needs-based scholarships of up to $3,000 per year, renewable for up to four years.
“It’s definitely something great that he’s done,” said Ryan Panitz, Otter’s campaign spokesman. Panitz noted that Otter wanted $100 million in the fund, but only got $20 million; no new money has been added for the past two years, though Otter unsuccessfully requested another $1 million this year.
“The governor established the Opportunity Scholarship Fund to help students go on to college, whether it be a four-year institution or a two-year school, and that is actually what the ad says and that’s been done,” Panitz said.
Mark Browning, spokesman for the State Board of Education, which administers the scholarship, said most recipients get the maximum of $3,000 per year. It’s a “last-dollar” scholarship, meaning students must first apply for all other available financial aid, and the Opportunity Scholarship steps in only after their family’s expected contribution and all other aid are taken into account. The fact that most recipients get the maximum amount, he said, “tells you how big the gap is” between student needs and what’s available.
“It’s a great program, because with that last-dollars mechanism you are really getting the people that need help, but it just really exemplifies what’s going on with the cost of education,” Browning said. “It’s tough, it’s really tough. The upside is you’ve got 450-some people that are able to go on and realize that dream. The downside is there’s many, many more that need it that don’t have access to it, because there’s not more money available.”
Shea Andersen, spokesman for Otter’s Democratic challenger, Keith Allred, said, “It looks like everywhere Otter goes on the issue of education, he keeps running into one problem: That he cut funding for it.”
However, Otter didn’t cut funding for the Opportunity Scholarship; he requested more this year, but the Legislature said no. Starting the fund was his idea in 2007. Andersen said, “The governor sets the tone for education funding, and he set it pretty plainly this year.”
The ad began running in eastern Idaho last week, and went statewide on Monday, running on cable in North Idaho.