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Idaho governor restores $99 million in education funding

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 11, 2020

Idaho Gov. Brad Little speaks at a news conference Sept. 3 at the Statehouse in Boise.  (Associated Press)
Idaho Gov. Brad Little speaks at a news conference Sept. 3 at the Statehouse in Boise. (Associated Press)
By Keith Ridler Associated Press

BOISE – Gov. Brad Little on Friday restored $99 million in K-12 education funding he cut earlier this year amid budget shortfall concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor also announced that another $50 million will be made available to parents so they’re less likely to leave the workforce or dip into household money while their children learn during the challenges posed by the pandemic.

“The stresses on our kids, families and educators right now our enormous,” Little said.

The money is coming from Idaho’s $1.25 billion share of the $2.2 trillion emergency relief package approved by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump last spring. Little said the U.S. Treasury Department last week changed rules on how the money can be spent, allowing the additional education spending. The money is on top of $122 million already provided to K-12 education from the relief money.

The $99 million cut earlier this year has already been absorbed by the state’s school districts, and school officials said it will be up to the local districts on how to spend the replacement money coming in.

“This money will support the schools throughout the state,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra said. “We hear every day about the new challenges that districts face on the fly.”

The $50 million for the Strong Families, Strong Students initiative program will provide up to $1,500 per child with a maximum of $3,500 per family. The money can be used to purchase educational materials, devices and services.

Many students are learning at home as school districts try to avoid spreading the virus.

Idaho has about 300,000 children in grades K-12, and the $50 million will help just over 30,000 of them, or around 15,000 families. Families can start applying for the program in October.

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield said the money will be distributed on a needs basis related to income. “We wish there was more, but we believe this is a substantial start,” she said.

She said the money could in particular help relieve stress students and teachers face on getting and using the technology needed for students to learn online.

There was some confusion about whether any of the $99 million could be used for teacher pay, as it’s supposed to be used only for needs related to the coronavirus. Little said the program was so new that details still had to be worked out.

Earlier this week, budget officials said tax revenues came in $37 million, or 13%, over forecasts for August, and the state was looking at a potential $500 million in surplus tax revenue for the fiscal year that started in July. Nearly $100 million of that was the cut to education.

Little said earlier this week it might be possible to focus on some of his education priorities, namely literacy and teacher pay, during the legislative session that starts in January.

“If I can maintain health care capacity, get people back to work and get kids back to school, a lot of these problems will be a lot less,” Little said at the Friday news conference.

Johns Hopkins University says Idaho has nearly 35,000 infections and just over 400 deaths through Thursday. But the percent of people testing positive for the virus has been trending down, recently dropping below 8%. The state’s economy also has been rebounding with unemployment dropping to 5%, though officials say federal emergency relief money could be only temporarily lowering that number.

Of the state’s $1.25 billion in relief money, about $200 million remains.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

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