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Funding for learning loss in reach, legislation passes House committee

Posted at 5:42 PM, Feb 16, 2022

BOISE, Idaho — Legislation to provide Idaho families with state funding to address COVID-19 learning loss in K-12 students passed the House Education Committee unanimously Wednesday.

The bill, carried by Republican Rep. Wendy Horman from Idaho Falls, would create the Empowering Parents Grant Program with $50 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding to address learning loss in K-12 students.

"Schools were closed, and parents were scrambling," Horman said on Wednesday. "We do know there is still significant need based on some of the learning loss situations that are still present in our state as a result of school closures to in-person learning."

Through the legislation, families would be eligible for $1,000 students or up to $3,000 per household to purchase additional educational resources. Both public and nonpublic K-12 students would qualify for grant funding.

Gov. Brad Little initially proposed the grant program during his 2022 State of the State address.

Related: State looks to help families with learning loss, legislation passes Senate committee

During the Wednesday committee hearing, Horman said the bill builds on Little's "Strong Families, Strong Students" initiative in 2020, which served over 80,000 Idahoans.

Like the governor's program, Horman said the new legislation "empowers parents by giving them resources to customize their child's education" regardless of where they attend a school or how they learn.

Related: Overwhelming demand for Strong Families, Strong Students grant program

The program is optional, and Horman said the funding would be distributed in tiers — with low-income families first on the list.

"I have worked for many years to try and get additional resources to students who have the greatest need," Horman said. "We still have a funding formula that doesn't acknowledge that, and we need to fix that still. But, this is a step in the direction of helping families close that gap for those students."

If passed, the legislation's funding would roll out in tiers:

  1. To families with an annual gross income of $60,000 or less 
  2. To families who earn up to $75,000 per year   
  3. To all other families on a first-come-first-serve basis until the money runs out   

According to the legislation, eligible expenses include technology, textbooks, testing fees, tutoring and therapies. The bill would also create a parent advisory panel and digital platform through which families could purchase materials from state-approved vendors.

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According to Horman, an additional $1.185 million in state general fund dollars is needed to pay for program administration costs.

Families interested in the grant would apply through the State Board of Education and have their income verified by the State Tax Commission. Once funding is in a family's digital account, they would have two years to spend the money.

The bill, which already has the support of Senate lawmakers, was praised by state and local officials during the committee hearing.

Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry President Alex LaBeau argued the grant program benefits families and the state's future workforce. He said the pandemic has created "persisting gaps" in Idaho's education system that are particularly challenging for families with fewer means of addressing learning loss.

"We think that these types of programs are critical for the addressing of those persistent gaps that are in our education system," LaBeau said. "Why is that important to us? Well, this is our future workforce. As these gaps continue through the education system, they end up in secondary and post-secondary (schools) and ultimately in the workforce."

Related: State of Education: Addressing learning loss and the transition to higher education

Backers of the bill also said it would give families in rural areas a much-needed boost. Karen Pyron, a school trustee in Butte County and regional chair of the Idaho School Board Association, believes that — much like the former legislation — Senate Bill 1255 would help form strong families and students.

"Parents are instrumental in the educational success of their children," she said. "Senate Bill 1255 provides an avenue for parents and students to engage in and connect with resources that they may otherwise not have access to. Especially those low-income families or those in rural Idaho, including those parents and students who reside in my community."

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for its consideration. If signed into law, the program would go into effect immediately.