Scholarships would help Erie students during pandemic

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Like the rest of the world, Erie has felt the battering effects of COVID-19. At present, the county death toll as recently published in the Erie Times-News stands at 52. Thousands have lost jobs and there have been numerous business closures. But we can still prevent adding Erie kids’ education to the casualty list.

Pre-COVID, Erie public schools began executing an improvement plan, backed by state taxpayers to the tune of an additional $14 million per year. The pandemic has thrown a wrench in those plans, and kids are suffering — even in schools that transitioned well to remote learning.

For years, we’ve undertaken various revitalization projects to return Erie to its economic glory days. Each project has employed public-private partnerships, with the understanding that revitalizing Erie will require all hands on deck. We see this now with Erie Refocused, Erie Forward, Eriie Downtown Development Corp. projects and Opportunity Zones.

It’s time to form the same public-private partnerships in education.

Fortunately, an innovative proposal in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly would enable students to get the help they need. State Rep. Clint Owlett, R-68th Dist., and Sen. Judy Ward, R-30th Dist., have introduced legislation for Back on Track scholarship accounts. These accounts — worth $1,000 per student — would allow parents to pay for tutoring, supplemental online classes, curriculum, tuition, counseling and other important educational expenses.

Back on Track scholarships are one of those rare “win-win” policies. Students win by getting the specific help they need. Parents win some assistance with the unexpected costs of at-home learning. Teachers win because their students can receive individual help, which will reduce the learning gaps in classrooms. Districts win because they can keep their focus on the important task of safely reopening schools.

For students who attend one of Erie’s private schools, Back on Track scholarships can help keep them enrolled — even in the face of financial hardships resulting from COVID-19. During this distressing period, such stability is crucial. After all, children from working families comprise the majority of Erie’s private school enrollment. Some are urban Catholic schools serving underprivileged students and relying on donations for financial aid. For example, Mother Theresa Academy’s tuition is $5,000 per year. More than 90% of Mother Theresa students need financial aid to attend the school. By comparison, public schools in Erie County spent around $18,000 per student in 2018-19.

Just like the positive impacts of education have a ripple effect, so do the negative impacts of months of lost learning. At a global level, studies show the long-term negative effects of this disruption. But we can mitigate that risk — and help our kids not fall further behind — by adopting Back on Track scholarships.

As the Erie Refocused plan notes, Erie must “adapt to a post-industrial economy in constructive and sustainable ways.” This is even more important as we face the challenges of the COVID era. Education, no doubt, is a vital part of that adaptation. 

Today, people customize everything, from meals at their favorite independent restaurants to the use of apps on smartphones. Education has been the exception. But as kids deal with the aftermath of school shutdowns in the spring and continue remote learning, we must ensure each child gets the help they need. Back on Track scholarships will equip parents to do just that.

By helping parents through Back on Track, we’ll unlock innovation in the education sector like never before. The “pandemic pods” sweeping the country are just the beginning of what can be achieved for our students. Back on Track scholarships shift the focus of education funding to where it belongs — on students.

Six months after Gov. Tom Wolf closed schools in response to the coronavirus, the Erie School District opened for fall under a fully remote plan. While some kids thrive learning at home, many will need individual attention to catch up. The shutdowns haven’t impacted all children in the same way, so no single solution will work. Back on Track scholarships, though, will enable children to receive the help they need.

We can’t let education become a casualty of the coronavirus. By embracing Back on Track scholarships, we can keep Erie kids on the path to a bright future.

Bruce Kern II is the president of Curtze Food Service, a food and beverage distributor in Erie, and is a member of Commonwealth Foundation's Board of Directors.