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Eye on Boise: Strong statewide interest in new education program

UPDATED: Sun., Oct. 25, 2020

By Betsy Z. Russell Idaho Press

Idaho’s state Board of Education reports that in just 48 hours, it had received 18,600 applications from parents for the new “Strong Families, Strong Students” program that will pay for computers and other services to help with their kids’ education during the COVID-19 pandemic, representing 38,289 schoolchildren.

The state allocated $50 million in CARES Act federal coronavirus aid for the new program, which will provide eligible families $1,500 per child, up to a maximum of $3,500, to offset new costs they face for education in the age of COVID, including distance learning. However, simple math suggests that if the state paid $1,500 each for 18,600 schoolkids, it would spend $57.4 million – more than it has available. The program just opened for applications on Wednesday.

So is the money gone? Not yet, say state board officials.

“There’s a whole process in which they have to make sure that people are actually eligible and such,” said board spokesman Mike Keckler. “That process still has to take place, the review of the applications.”

The review will take about two weeks, Keckler said. And Traci Bent, chief planning and policy officer for the state board, said the lowest-income families will be given priority. Applications still are being accepted.

“We really encourage people to move quickly and get their application in,” Keckler said.

Bent said, “The two ways applications are ranked, is first adjusted gross income, then when they applied.”

The program is designed to award the money to a “first tier” of applicants first – those with household adjusted gross income of $50,000 or less. Only after the initial batch of those families are considered will higher-income applicants be considered.

“Originally we were going to hold the first tier open for four weeks,” Bent said. “But we got so many applications, we’re re-evaluating that.”

“I didn’t think it would take off quite so quickly,” she said. “The more awards that go out for our low-income families, that’s success for me.”

Funds awarded through the program can be spent on eligible expenses, including computer hardware and software, adaptive learning technology, internet connectivity, instructional materials, fees for courses, tutoring services, educational services and therapies, and licensed day care during work hours.

Bent said once families receive the award, they will have two options: They can purchase those items or services through an online marketplace set up by a vendor, ClassWallet, which received a contract to manage the program for the state; or they can apply for reimbursement for eligible products or services purchased elsewhere since the pandemic began.

“There is a pathway for people to receive reimbursement for items they may have purchased between March 1, when the schools shut down, up to Dec. 30,” Keckler said.

But funds allocated to the online marketplace for parents may be spent through June 30, as the state will have met CARES Act deadlines by committing the funds by Dec. 30.

ClassWallet, based in Florida, was awarded the no-bid contract for the $50 million program on Oct. 19; the AP reported that the state board unanimously approved the no-bid contract, citing time constraints and the company’s existing similar programs for four other states, Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma.

ClassWallet is represented by the lobbying firm Strategos Group, of which former Idaho state school superintendent and current state GOP Chairman Tom Luna is a partner; the governor’s office told the AP Luna’s involvement had “no bearing” on the choice of the vendor.

Bent said she’s been impressed with the customer support ClassWallet is providing to families applying for the Idaho program. “They’re pretty good at it,” she said. “They’ve got Spanish- speaking customer service folks as well.”

Keckler said families can call the company’s customer service and technical support line toll-free at (844) 649-2921 for assistance in how to apply.

When the program first opened to applications on Wednesday morning, close to 1,200 were submitted in the first hour, Keckler said, causing “a bit of a delay in the system for some,” but it continued to work. “And here we are today,” he said. “This is very encouraging.”

Connecting campaign dots

Both Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane and the Idaho Secretary of State’s office have determined that multiple campaign contributions to two Ada County Highway District candidates and one GOP legislative candidate, identified as coming from various LLCs that shared the same addresses, violated campaign finance laws by exceeding contribution limits.

Idaho state law forbids making multiple contributions from related companies to evade the limits.

The contributions, all from a series of construction-related firms in Eagle with names like “Ustick1 LLC,” “Hubbard1 LLC,” and “G20 LLC,” went to state Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle; and ACHD candidates Rebecca Arnold, an incumbent, and Kara Veit, a challenger.

McGrane said he was contacted last week by blogger Dave Frazier, who reported that a volunteer researcher, Clancy Anderson, spotted the contributions in the state’s new consolidated campaign finance disclosure database operated by the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.

This is the first general election in which the consolidated database, which now includes both state and local races, is available. Donors in legislative and local races are limited to $1,000 per candidate per election.

McGrane contacted the Secretary of State’s office, and after both investigated, they contacted the candidates to ask them to refund the excess contributions. “The candidates were wholly unaware that they were related donations, and they were willing to cooperate,” McGrane said.

Anderson, a produce broker, said he “didn’t necessarily have any axes to grind with anybody that’s on this,” and just enjoys “connecting the dots.”

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