A Choice for All Students

Barbara “Annie” Jackson waitresses at Roxy's Café just a short walk away from the Capitol building in Harrisburg. Eight months pregnant, Annie serves steaming plates of eggs and mugs of hot coffee to hungry Harrisburg patrons. She is expecting a son in June—a brother to 5-year-old Grace.

While working a demanding job, Annie's also planning to pursue a nursing degree at a local community college. But what's most important to Annie is her children's education.

Sadly, while many school districts offer a quality, effective education, Harrisburg isn't one of them.

A friend who teaches in Harrisburg school district even warned Annie against sending Grace to district schools—and no wonder. Harrisburg schools are some of the worst-performing in the state. Despite spending nearly $19,000 per pupil, just 20 percent of district students are proficient in reading and only 10 percent can do math at grade level.

“Kids in Harrisburg aren't any less intelligent or deserving,” Annie says. “The system is failing them. It isn't fair.”

That's why she sought out alternatives and enrolled Grace in pre-K at St. Stephen's Episcopal School on North Front Street. At $6,000, tuition stretches Annie's budget to the breaking point, which is why she continues waitressing so far into her pregnancy.

But Annie is making the sacrifice because she values the individual attention, small classroom sizes, and spiritual grounding St. Stephen's provides Grace. The results are worth every penny.

“Gracie is happy every day,” Annie says. “She's thriving there. Having that choice opened the door for me to be more involved in her education.”

Annie is grateful she could make a choice for Grace, but other kids also deserve options that fit their needs. And moms fighting for their children's futures deserve our support.

While the state's tax credit scholarships have helped many students attend schools of choice, more must be done to bring equal education opportunity to all Pennsylvania students.

Thankfully, some state lawmakers are championing a solution. Rep. Judy Ward (R-Blair County) and Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin County) have both introduced legislation to bring education savings accounts to Pennsylvania. These accounts would empower more parents to customize their child's education—to make choices like Annie's.

Education savings accounts are state-funded accounts supervised by the Pennsylvania Treasury that parents can use to purchase a range of education services, including tutoring, therapy, curriculum, and private school tuition, customized to their child's individual needs.

Two-thirds of Pennsylvania likely voters support education savings accounts, according to polling.

Under DiSanto's plan, SB 2, students in schools performing in the bottom 15 percent statewide would be eligible for an education savings account. Ward's bill, HB 2228, would offer education savings accounts to students with special needs.

Any student using an education savings account must first withdraw from their local public school. For those concerned about the financial impact on school districts, only the state portion of education funding would follow the child. That means district schools would keep all local funding for a student they no longer educate, allowing them to reduce class sizes and spend more money per student.

That's a win-win for families seeking options and for school districts.

With a baby on the way, it's unclear how long Annie can afford to send Grace to the school that allows her to thrive. When asked how she'll make ends meet in the coming years, Annie doesn't hesitate, saying, “I would give up my college plans to allow Gracie to go to St. Stephen's.”

She shouldn't have to.

Six states have already enacted education savings account programs, and Pennsylvania could be next. For Annie, and thousands of parents like her, there's no time to waste.

Senate Bill 2 recently passed the Senate Education Committee and is set up for a full Senate vote. The bill would create an education savings account of about $6,000 for students in low-performing schools.

Quality education should not be limited to those who can move to a better district or who have the means to pay private school tuition. Every child should have equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and earn success. Education savings accounts can help make that vision a reality.