When Gov. Wolf ordered all schools to close on March 13, no one expected the closures to last the rest of the school year. And almost no one was prepared for fully remote education. Without a doubt, kids throughout the state have missed out on learning. Many families have borne unexpected expenses from these school closures.
Newly introduced legislation would create “Back on Track” Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to help families cope with learning losses and the costs associated with school closures. Sen. Judy Ward’s SB 1230 and Rep. Clint Owlett’s HB 2696 are companion bills that 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 find pathways to safely resume education this Fall, scholarship accounts would benefit students by empowering parents to get their kids the individualized help they need to avoid falling further behind. New research predicts that teachers will see exacerbated achievement gaps when schools reopen. Equipping parents to remediate the specific needs of their children will help alleviate these gaps.
Back on Track accounts will also help:
- School districts that are already struggling to plan the new school year. A recent analysis found many districts are not offering new programs to help kids catch up from school closures. Equipping parents to access help would allow districts to keep the focus on safely re-opening schools.
- Parents who feel unsafe sending their children to schools. Back on Track ESAs will help families afford alternative options.
- Local schools that need social distance in classrooms. Back on Track ESAs will mitigate a flood of new students who may no longer be able to afford tuition to attend their current private school.
Back on Track ESAs can only be used for educational purchases, allowing parents to get the specific help their kids need to recover from COVID-19 school closures. Back on Track ESAs can be used to help kids prepare for the new school year or used during the school year for things like after-school enrichment or tutoring.
The accounts would be funded with money remaining from the federal CARES Act. While much of it has already 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.
Each Back on Track ESAs will be worth $1,000. Initial eligibility will be limited to families who qualify for the free and reduced lunch 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 these guidelines. The program is capped at $500 million, which means up to 500,000 kids can participate. Since the budget doesn’t include enough for every eligible child, money will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. The final cost of the program will depend on how many students apply for an account.
Back on Track ESAs are the best ways to get individual students the help they need in the wake of COVID-19 school closures, but time is of the essence. Dr. Eric Hanushek of Stanford, estimates the educational impact of the school closures will reduce students’ lifetime earnings by 3-6%. For disadvantaged students, the impact is even larger. Kids have suffered enough from the coronavirus. Back on Track ESAs can help stop the losses and put them on a better path.