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Gov. Brad Little

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Idaho will tap 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 today at a news conference in the Lincoln Auditorium at the state Capitol.

“Idaho was just recognized for leading all 50 states in our economic momentum,” the governor said. “That’s the reason we’re able to make these investments in education during the pandemic while other states face 20 to 40% budget cuts, including cuts to education.”

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 roughly $150 million.

Idaho still has 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 work force, something that strains our economic rebound,” the governor declared.

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 eligible educational materials, devices and services.

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield and state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra joined Little at the news conference in the Capitol’s Lincoln Auditorium to discuss the new program; the state board will administer it. Critchfield said it would be open not only to public school students but to all school students, and there would be a needs-based component to eligibility.

Little estimated the program could help about 30,000 students; Idaho has roughly 310,000 public school students.

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.

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