July 23, 2023

Kevin Richart: How Idaho’s troubled Empowering Parents vendor expanded its national brand

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School voucher laws create new business opportunities for companies that want to make a buck helping spread taxpayer money around to private schools. But not all of these companies are very good at the work. Kevin Richart reports from Ohio about one company that is working to expand its troubled reach.

The company in charge of Idaho’s troubled Empowering Parents program has national aspirations.

Primary Class — a New York-based education vendor, also known as Odyssey — was a newcomer in August, when it landed the contract to run Idaho’s $50 million Empowering Parents microgrant program. The deal, worth close to $1.5 million, was Odyssey’s first statewide contract anywhere in the nation.

But in February, Odyssey landed a contract to launch Iowa’s fledgling education savings account program. Odyssey is also bidding for a contract to run Arizona’s expanding ESA program; a decision could come in early July.

Odyssey made Idaho a centerpiece of its successful bid in Iowa. At least publicly, Odyssey gave no inkling of the problems plaguing Empowering Parents — recurring reports of improper taxpayer-funded purchases, involving non-educational items such as TV sets, smart watches and clothing. Two of the unsuccessful Iowa bidders flatly accuse Odyssey of exaggerating the success of Empowering Parents.

Empowering Parents’s time in Iowa hasn’t been that long.

In 2022, legislators and Gov. Brad Little agreed to fold $50 million of federal coronavirus aid into Empowering Parents — a program to allow parents to seek grants to cover their at-home educational costs, for computers, curricular materials, tutoring or therapy. As a result, Idaho needed a contractor to set up a digital marketplace, where eligible parents could spend their share of grant dollars through qualified vendors.

Enter Odyssey.

The company was not the low bidder for the job. Nor was it the most experienced bidder. One of its competitors was Hollywood, Fla.-based ClassWallet, which received a no-bid contract in 2020 to run Idaho’s predecessor to Empowering Parents, known as Strong Families, Strong Students.

The emphasis was on speed, but with speed come other problems.

The Odyssey website began taking parents’ applications within 30 days, meeting the State Board deadline. But when parents began making purchases through the digital marketplace, problems developed quickly.

An inventory of dubious purchases included big-ticket items and sundries alike — everything from sporting goods and gaming accessories to TV sets and sewing machines. According to State Board documents, obtained by Idaho Education News through a public records request, it took four months for Odyssey to send vendors a list of items that were eligible, or ineligible, for state microgrants.

As the questionable purchases piled up, the State Board launched an in-house Empowering Parents review. The board released its findings Friday. Fewer than 1% of purchases were found to be ineligible, the board said, and Odyssey agreed to  reimburse the state to the tune of $180,000. However, about 14% of the purchases remain under review, and a third-party audit will continue, at Little’s request.

Iowa is not unique here. Oklahoma has uncovered similar problems with a similar program. Read the full story of Empowering Parents here. 

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