Pa. Legislature Looks to Help Families with Education Expenses

July 15, 2020, Harrisburg, Pa. — Members of the Pa. House and Senate have sponsored legislation would create “Back on Track” Education Scholarship Accounts (ESA) to help families afford growing education expenses following coronavirus-related school closures. SB 1230 (Sen. Judy Ward) and HB 2696 (Rep. Clint Owlett) are companion bills that, if enacted, would make $1,000 per child available to eligible families for approved education-related purchases. 

The accounts would initially be limited to families at or below 185% of the federal poverty level, which is $40,182 for a family of three.

As districts and communities struggle to safely resume education this Fall, scholarship accounts would benefit students by empowering families with a fair shot at affording the educational help they need to avoid falling further behind. 

ESAs will also:

  • Allow districts to focus on the unprecedented challenge they face of safely re-opening schools without bearing full responsibility for getting kids back on track. 
  • Enable families who feel unsafe sending their children to schools to pursue alternative options.
  • Mitigate a flood of new students into the public system who may no longer be able to afford tuition to attend their current private school.

Commonwealth Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Colleen Hroncich recently wrote an article explaining how Back on Track ESAs work. An abridged version of the article is below, and you can read the full online version by visiting this URL:

Understanding Back on Track ESAs

By Colleen Hroncich

What are education scholarship accounts (ESAs)?

ESAs are restricted-use accounts that are funded with tax dollars. Like health savings accounts, 529 college plans, or electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards for food stamps, funds in Back on Track ESAs could only be used for approved purchases—things like tuition, online classes, curriculum, tutoring, and services for students with special needs.

What are Back on Track ESAs?

ESAs typically follow the traditional school year and are used for expenses accrued from educational options outside of attending the local district school. Back on Track ESAs are different. Their purpose is to help kids recover from educational harms caused by COVID-19 school closures. They can be used by kids regardless of what type of school they usually attend. Over the summer months, Back on Track ESAs can be used to help kids prepare for the new school year. Once school resumes, they can be used for things like after-school enrichment or tutoring. Rather than attempting a one-size-fits-all solution, Back on Track ESAs will allow parents to get the specific help their kids need.

How would Back on Track ESAs be funded?

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included $3.9 billion for coronavirus-related expenses in Pennsylvania. While much of that has been appropriated, around $1.3 billion remains available. Since the purpose of Back on Track ESAs is to help kids catch up from COVID-19 school closures, they would qualify for CARES Act funding.

How much will they cost?

Back on Track ESAs will be worth $1,000 and initially be limited to families who qualify for the free and reduced lunch (FRL) program. For a family of three, that means households with an income below $40,182. There are an estimated 600,000 children in Pennsylvania who would qualify for Back on Track ESAs using the FRL guidelines. However, money will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis with a $500 million cap using some of the $1.3 billion remaining from CARES Act funds. This cap means not every eligible child will be able to receive one, but the program will potentially help 500,000 kids catch up on learning they missed during school closures. The final cost of the program will depend on how many students apply for an account.

Is there public support for ESAs?

Yes! Recent polling shows 73% of Pennsylvanians support ESAs—and the poll was conducted before schools were closed due to COVID-19. Now that families across the state are educating their kids at home—with varying degrees of district support—it’s likely even more would support receiving financial assistance for the costs they’re accruing.

Commonwealth Foundation experts are available for comment. Please contact Michael Torres at 850-619-2737 or [email protected] to schedule an interview.
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