New emails shed light on Virginia learning grant program issues; thousands of parents receive rejections

Posted at 7:46 PM, Aug 03, 2023
and last updated 2023-08-04 08:36:57-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Internal emails from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) shed light on the problems with the Virginia Learning Acceleration Grant program and how state leaders scrambled to respond.

Parents began reaching out to CBS 6 in early July, complaining about the program. They said they had received money from the VDOE that they were unable to use.

“I think the execution has been flawed," said Henrico Public Schools parent Melvin Bolden.

“I feel like they set parents up in a sense to fail," said Richmond Public Schools parent Gabrielle Cevallos.

“A ton of headaches. It almost seemed like it wasn’t going to actually be usable money. I was worried," said homeschool parent Emily Kavanaugh.

Governor Youngkin announced the $30 million program, which later turned into a $60 million program, in March to help parents buy private tutoring sessions and assistive technology for their children with the aim of combating learning loss.

Families received direct payments of $1500 or $3,000, based on income, for those services.

The funds were deposited into a "ClassWallet" account, which basically serves as an online wallet, and parents used links to online stores and services to make purchases. But their orders were repeatedly rejected.

“Everything’s just getting denied, denied," Kavanaugh said. "There seemed to be no rhyme or reason on how long it would take for your request to be reviewed, sometimes taking a matter of hours or days, and then sometimes taking weeks and weeks."

Parents said they didn't understand why.

“It just seemed absolutely random, just somebody with a blindfold on saying 'yes, no, yes, no,'" Kavanaugh said.

Tyler Layne poses questions to Governor Youngkin

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So, CBS 6 took parents' concerns to Youngkin, who said VDOE initially structured the program in a way that was non-compliant with state and federal regulations.

The program was allowing services to be paid for in advance, not on a reimbursement basis. When officials tried restructuring the payment system, tutoring providers pulled out or were removed from the program, and confusion ensued.

Youngkin previously told CBS 6 that the impact of these issues was minimal.

“I know there’s a handful. I’m not sure there’s so many, but I know there’s a handful of folks that have had some challenges," Youngkin said.

But according to new information obtained through a public records request, as of July 5, parents' orders had been rejected by the state 8,990 times. That's compared to 12,650 orders that were approved.

According to internal emails, VDOE project manager Mike Patterson wrote that complaints were "coming in fast and angrier than previous issues."

On June 14, Patterson said they had reached a "critical point with decisions about prepaid services" and that the program decided not to pay for prepaid services for some tutoring providers. However, he cited a "complicated" issue because some parents who already paid for services will be "looking for reimbursement"

Explaining that pre-paying for services "cannot be allowed" under Virginia accounting rules, Patterson said, "We need to tear the band-aid off now and have a carefully crafted message when parents find out some have been approved in the past."

State Superintendent Dr. Lisa Coons responded, "I am not sure why we haven't 'torn off the band-aid.' I was clear that we were only doing reimbursements..." in order to ensure compliance and auditing expectations.

"I am not violating those expectations as the state superintendent of public instruction in Virginia," Coons stated in her email.

On June 19, Coons sent a memo to staff to clear up "problematic conversations."

She explained the grants will work on a reimbursement basis only, that a message should be communicated to parents, that the program should not be paying for elective homeschooling programming, and that staff should ensure ClassWallet was not prioritizing tutoring subcontractors owned by the same parent company as ClassWallet.

Gabrielle Cevallos

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She thought education grants would help her kids. Turns out, she can't use them.

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VDOE sent a message to families on June 28 explaining the new program restrictions and that some tutoring providers had been removed from the program, and that's when parents began expressing concerns to CBS 6.

On July 11, parents received a positive message from the VDOE that tutoring vendors had been added back to the program, more assistive technologies would be approved for purchase, and the deadline to spend their grant money had been extended to September 1.

VDOE Chief of Staff Jeremy Raley told CBS 6 in a statement that the department had addressed all concerns as of July 14.

“It was just this huge shift that happened seemingly almost overnight, and so everybody's feeling a big sense of relief," Kavanaugh said. "Everybody's got this hopeful feeling again that we'll get to use this money."

Kavanaugh said she noticed positive changes, and was finally approved for new technologies and science tutoring lessons for her child.

She was thankful that parents' voices were heard.

“You’re the one who went out there and started knocking on doors and talking to governors and the VDOE and asking questions, so I think we all are thanking you," Kavanaugh told CBS 6 reporter Tyler Layne.

Some other data points, according to VDOE's internal reports as of July 10:

  • 9,904 parents had received the standard $1,500 grant
  • 4,716 parents had received the low-income qualified grant of $3,000
  • 18,037 standard applications were still pending
  • 1,789 low-income qualified applications were still pending
  • $28.9 million total had been distributed to parents across the state
  • $10.8 million of that went to parents in Northern Virginia, which was the region with the most grant recipients (37% of the total funding)
  • $315,000 of that went to parents in rural Southside Virginia, which was the region with the lowest number of grant recipients (1% of the total funding)
  • In May, Coons sent an email to the local schools superintendent in Bristol asking for help, because she noticed a "pattern" that Southwest Virginia parents were not applying for grants as much as Northern Virginia parents.
  • "I want to make sure that this opportunity is accessible across the state," Coons wrote in a May email.

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