BOISE — Idaho will tap federal CARES Act funds to make back up the $99 million it’s cut from the public school budget, plus another $50 million that will go directly to Idaho families to help parents cover school-related expenses for their kids amid the pandemic.
Gov. Brad Little announced the decisions Friday at a news conference in the Lincoln Auditorium at the state Capitol.
“Supporting K-12 education in Idaho is our constitutional and moral responsibility, and it’s my top priority as governor,” Little declared. “My goal is to make Idaho a place where our children choose to stay and for those who left to choose to return. We simply cannot meet that goal without a strong public education system in place. … The stresses on our kids, families and educators right now are enormous.”
The cut to this year’s public school budget was imposed July 1 at the start of the current state fiscal year, in anticipation of state tax revenues taking a big hit amid the economic impact of the pandemic. However, thus far, state revenues have come in much stronger than expected, outstripping even pre-COVID-19 forecasts.
In addition, the U.S. Treasury Department last week issued new guidance to states on how they can spend their shares of the CARES Act coronavirus relief funds, which for Idaho came to $1.25 billion. The new guidance allows CARES Act funds from states’ shares to be spent for COVID-19-related education expenses including technology and personal protective equipment, with up to $500 per student presumed to qualify as COVID-related. In Idaho, $500 per public school student would come to more than $150 million.
Prior to Friday’s announcement, Idaho still had about $350 million left unallocated from its $1.25 billion.
Little said in addition to making back up the school budget cuts, a new $50 million fund would go directly to Idaho families under a new “Strong Families, Strong Students” initiative, aimed at keeping parents from having to exit the workforce or spend household resources to ensure their kids can continue learning when schools are operating via distance learning or hybrid models.
“When parents have to step in to provide instruction and equipment due to school-related closures, we see them pushed out of the workforce, something that strains our economic rebound,” the governor said. “When school districts across the state abruptly closed schools last spring, our workforce took a hit. Families continue to face many challenges as they rapidly adapt. … Many Idaho parents had to quit their jobs or reduce hours.”
Eligible Idaho families could receive $1,500 per eligible student under the new program, with a maximum of $3,500 per family. They could use the money to purchase educational materials, devices and services.
“We think it’ll cover over 30,000 students,” Little said.
However, Idaho has roughly 310,000 public school students.
“We wish that there was more,” said state Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield, who along with state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra joined Little at the news conference. But Critchfield called the move “a really substantial start into helping some of our most vulnerable families.”
The program will be open not only to public school students but to all school-age students, and eligibility will be needs-based and tied to income, Critchfield said. Payments will start going out in October. The state board will administer the program and finalize eligibility criteria.
She said the new funding will benefit schools, teachers and families who have been doing “a lot of bending and adapting as the circumstances have changed.”
Critchfield and Ybarra said the funds would restore all the cuts to line items in the public school budget that were imposed on July 1, including the $26 million cut from teacher salaries as part of freezing the teacher career ladder. However, all the funds would go out to school districts as discretionary funds, leaving it up to the districts as to how to spend them. Ybarra said she’s requesting to formally “unfreeze” the teacher career ladder in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2021.
Little said, “I anticipate a lot of it will be for additional help,” while some districts will use the money to keep teacher pay competitive. “We’ll rely on the school districts to do the right thing,” he said.
The governor said his Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee will meet Tuesday to review and vote on the proposals. If both are approved, Idaho still would have $200 million left in unallocated CARES Act funds.
“We’ll continue to take requests,” Little said. “We will continue to look at the needs. At the end of the day, if unemployment doesn’t go down, we’ll probably sweep more of it into the unemployment (fund).”
While Friday’s announcements would reverse the 5% budget cuts imposed on public schools, they wouldn’t restore the 5% holdbacks on the rest of the state budget, including higher education.
“Everybody’s suffering from this thing,” the governor said. “I would love to make everyone whole, but that’s just not going to happen. The most important thing we can do is restore the economy.”
Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.