Originally published in The Washington Examiner.
Some Pennsylvania parents would prefer to have their children continue learning online rather than going back to school this fall as a safeguard against COVID-19.
Najimah Roberson, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, resident, falls into this category. All three of her children will be pursuing their education from home during the upcoming school year, and all three will be relying on internet technology. Roberson also recognizes that there might be a limit to how much time and attention some parents can devote to online learning because of their work commitments and other special circumstances.
That’s why she favors making a wide range of educational options available to Pennsylvania children that would be available to both public and private school students. For Roberson, this was her view before COVID-19 forced school closures in the commonwealth, but with the pandemic creating so much uncertainty for the upcoming school year, Roberson suspects that the appeal of virtual learning will become more evident to a broader population.
“I have three children who go to three different schools who all benefit from school choice programs in one form or another,” she said in an interview. “We’re all individuals, and we’re all different, right? When I took them out of the Harrisburg public city schools, I made sure that would individualize my kids to the curriculum. That’s why they go to three different schools.”
Since Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf ordered school buildings to close in response to COVID-19 back in March, and it’s not clear how many schools across the state will reopen for in-person instruction this fall, the demand for online learning has accelerated just as Roberson anticipated. However, the technology and equipment that makes all this possible come with a price.
That’s why the Harrisburg parent is eyeing a new legislative proposal known as “Back on Track” Education Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, that specifically addresses the fallout from COVID-19. Roberson and others who are in need of financial assistance to cover expenses that could not have been anticipated before the pandemic stand to benefit from scholarships designed to alleviate the impact of COVID-19.
State Rep. Clint Owlett, a Republican representing District 68, is sponsoring HB 2696, and state Sen. Judy Ward, a Republican representing District 30, is pushing a companion bill, SB 1230. If enacted, the ESAs would provide families with a $1,000 spending account that could be used to pay for tuition, tutoring, supplies, new technology, and other educational needs.
Initially, the accounts would be limited to families that now qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch program. For a family of three, this would translate into households with an income below $40,182. An analysis of government figures based on FRL guidelines shows that about 600,000 Pennsylvania children would be eligible.
“This is a short-term, stop-gap type of ESA that parents can use to try [to] get their children back on track,” Owlett said in an interview. “You can’t interrupt the school year like we did this past spring and not have some students that are struggling. We’re hearing from parents that their student is not going to be entering the next grade at the point where they should be. We designed this to be a way to get some of the federal money that is still available directly to the parents.”
Owlett sees Back on Track operating in two phases, with the first phase of the program focusing on those families that qualify for the free lunch program. The second phase would direct unused funds to the broader student population based on their educational needs. The CARES Act included $3.9 billion for coronavirus-related expenses in Pennsylvania. Although much of this has already been appropriated, about $1.3 billion remains available.
“This type of ESA is really unique because it’s designed to be laser-focused on where students have specific needs,” Owlett explained. “The parents are going to notice where their students are and where they have struggled. If we can get this done, it will be another step in the right direction to help parents engage directly in the education of their children and make choices with them.”
Parents could use the scholarship to cover the costs of tutoring, tuition, online instruction, special needs, and school supplies, to cite just a few examples. Roberson, for instance, could use help with equipment costs.
“Having all three kids at home with a laptop or desktop or even a tablet pulling from the same internet source means I have to get a little creative and purchase splitters or extenders,” Roberson said. “I could use the Back on Track funding to make sure my children have a successful school year. Back on Track will help to offset the costs of the purchases I need to make.”
Ashley DeMauro Mullins, who serves as the northeast regional advocacy director for ExcelinEd, a national nonprofit group that supports education reform, views Pennsylvania as a vital player within the school choice movement nationally. She credits Owlett and other lawmakers for moving forward with a proposal that specifically addresses COVID-19 and opens up new avenues for those most in need.
“We’re seeing a gradual movement in the right direction with the Back on Track proposal,” Mullins said in an interview. “This is not some gargantuan program. Instead, the idea is to start with people of limited financial means who were specifically set back by COVID-19.”