Idaho OKs contract to distribute low-income education money

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials on Monday approved a contract with Florida-based vendor ClassWallet to distribute $50 million in federal coronavirus emergency money to low-income families to help children learn during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Idaho State Board of Education awarded the no-bid contract Monday that with various fees will cost the state about $2 million to administer.

The program will provide up to $1,500 per child with a maximum of $3,500 per family and help about 30,000 kids. The program starts Wednesday, and families can apply between then and Dec. 8. Applications will go out in waves based on need until the money runs out.

The board unanimously signed off on the contract that’s part of the Strong Families, Strong Students initiative program put forward by Republican Gov. Brad Little.

The money is intended to make it less likely for parents to leave the workforce or dip into household money while their children learn amid the challenges posed by the pandemic. The money will be distributed based on income and can be used to purchase educational materials, computers and other services.

“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,” Little said in a statement.

Many of Idaho’s 310,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade are learning at home as school districts and families try to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Idaho received $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus relief money that must be used by Dec. 31. More than $1 billion of the money has been allocated.

Terms of the contract with ClassWallet include a one-time implementation fee of $250,000, plus another immediate cost of $265,000 that comes from a $53 service fee for the first 5,000 applications.

The state expects to pay an amount approaching $1.5 million spread out in monthly costs for remaining applications that also have a service fee of $53 combined with fees of $15 per award for reimbursement of equipment or services already purchased.

The contract also contains a 2.5% transaction fee that vendors, not the state, will pay to ClassWallet, adding up to about $1.2 million.

Such a large vending contract would typically go through Idaho’s required competitive bidding process. But the Board of Education in early September sought approval to bypass that requirement and received permission to do so late last month from the Idaho Division of Purchasing.

“We’ve got to expend these funds by the end of the year, and so that was the reason for that,” board spokesman Mike Keckler said.

State officials said ClassWallet has similar programs running in other states — Arizona, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Oklahoma — and is part of the reason it was selected.

ClassWallet is represented by the lobbying firm Strategos Group. Tom Luna, the former Idaho superintendent of public instruction and current chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, is a partner there.

Luna didn’t return a message left for him by