Getting Kids Back on Track

Time is of the essence.

As we head into summer, kids have missed nearly three months of school. Education Week surveyed teachers in early May and found only 37% interact with their students at least once a day. Not surprisingly, 82% said their students’ engagement is lower than before the closures. Many of these kids were already behind academically. A new school year will be here before we know it; we have to act urgently to help kids get back on track.

This pandemic has shown with crystal clarity the need to drop our system-focused approach to education. Too many kids are falling behind in normal times. With the disruption in their lives from coronavirus shutdowns, the situation has been sharply exacerbated. Moreover, a recent USA Today poll found nearly 60% of parents are considering keeping their kids home in the fall if schools re-open. We need a solution targeted to students.

Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) are that solution. Every child is unique, so no system-oriented solution will meet their needs. Back on Track ESAs, in contrast, will enable parents to get their children the specific help they require.

What is a Back on Track ESA? It would be a restricted-use account funded with a portion of the money Pennsylvania has received through the CARES Act (the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act). Like electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards for food stamps or health savings accounts (HSAs), 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. In other words, they can be used for the K-12 academic needs of individual kids throughout Pennsylvania.

Recent polling shows 73% of Pennsylvanians support ESAs—and the poll was conducted before schools were closed due to COVID-19. Now that education has been disrupted and families across the state are desperate for help, it’s likely even more Pennsylvanians would support Back on Track ESAs. While the accounts would only cover a fraction of that need, it’s better than the complete absence of support many parents are currently receiving.

Taxpayers throughout the state have asked if they’ll receive a tax rebate due to school closures. Other sectors of the economy are offering refunds to account for COVID-19 related service interruptions. Many colleges are offering partial refunds to students for room and board and other fees. Auto insurance companies are reimbursing customers because car accidents are down. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has even threatened $1,000-$3,000 fines to gyms that continue charging fees for services they can’t provide.

Education funds are meant to educate Pennsylvania kids—and that needs to happen even if schools are closed. While Back on Track ESAs aren’t a refund, they have a similar impact by providing parents funds to deal with new at-home learning expenses.

The current system isn’t equipped to deal with the coronavirus disruptions and learning loss. With Back on Track ESAs, we can help each individual student get the help they need.