Lawmakers can Help Students get Back on Track

Originally published in LancasterOnline and a version was also published in PennLive.

Najimah Roberson, a Harrisburg mother of three, is among the many parents making the hard choice to keep her kids home this year due to pandemic health concerns and uncertainty about what fall will bring. But she worries about the costs involved with increased internet usage and other home education expenses.

“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,” says Roberson.

Roberson isn’t alone in her worries. Ask any parent with kids in K-12: the coronavirus has disrupted schooling in a multitude of ways. Not only are students at every level losing valuable education time, but families are taking a financial hit paying for tutoring, supplies, online programs, and even childcare.

In Lancaster County, school districts’ reopening plans vary along a spectrum from full-time virtual classes, to full-time in-person instruction, or some combination of the two, as the LNP reports. And schools opening in-person require strict social distancing and masking for all students over two years old. Thousands of parents are seeking alternatives, but not everyone can afford the expense of private school tuition, personal tutors, or homeschooling.

Thankfully, there’s good news on the horizon. In a recent hearing of the Pennsylvania House Education Committee, state Rep. Barbara Gleim (R-Cumberland County) asked Rich Askey—the head of the state’s largest teachers’ union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association—if the union would support policies that provide financial assistance for families with new at-home learning expenses. 

Askey’s response was encouraging to Pennsylvania parents and students: “Absolutely. Representative, I’m a teacher in Harrisburg School District, and I have seen firsthand for over 32 years the needs of my community where I teach. Any assistance that we can give those folks so their children can be successful would be important to have.”

Sen. Judy Ward (R-Hollidaysburg) and Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Wellsboro) have a solution that will do just that, helping Pennsylvania students find their footing in the unsteady post-coronavirus educational landscape without spending an extra cent of taxpayer money: Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). 

Funded with a portion of Pennsylvania’s reserved federal CARES Act funding, the proposal would establish scholarship accounts that families can use for educational necessities, similar to EBT cards used for supplemental nutritional assistance. Approved items like tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and even counseling and other special services would be eligible expenses. Families would receive $1,000 per student—which would go a long way toward helping them make up for lost educational time. 

The families most in need—those earning less than $40,000 per year for a family of three—would receive this “education stimulus” first. The chaos and uncertainty of Pennsylvania’s school districts this fall makes Back on Track ESAs a timely solution.

In addition to making more options accessible to parents, the scholarship accounts also benefit district schools that open for in-person learning by reducing class sizes, making social distancing less burdensome. Plus, since most education funding in Pennsylvania does not follow the student, district schools are left with more resources per student when some students choose another option. And, with the ESA, district students who’ve fallen behind during the pandemic can get the additional tutoring and counseling they need to catch up to their peers.

Now more than ever, we’re seeing that education isn’t one size fits all. Even before coronavirus school closures, 73 percent of Pennsylvanians supported scholarship accounts. For her part, Roberson says she would use Back on Track ESAs “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.” Other families might need help affording counseling, special therapies, or other learning resources. 

Back on Track ESAs will offer equal opportunity for students most in need in a way that slow-moving district schools often can’t. And there’s no time to waste: Thousands of Pennsylvania’s poorest students have no options beyond their local district school, even if their unique needs aren’t being met. They deserve help getting back on track—and lawmakers in Harrisburg can give them what they need to succeed.