Emergency Education Scholarship Accounts
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was a massive attempt to offset financial hardships from the COVID-19 crisis. The package included “stimulus” checks, expanded unemployment, funds for state governments, and funds for schools. But the parents who are now overseeing their children’s education have not received targeted aid to help them deal with limited education opportunities. A state-level Emergency Education Scholarship Account (ESA) would be a lifeline for families who are coping with these unforeseen challenges.
What are Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs)?
ESAs are restricted-use accounts that are funded with a portion of the state’s per-pupil education dollars. The money can be used for things like tuition, online classes, curriculum, tutoring, and services for students with special needs.
Is there public support for ESAs?
Yes! Recent polling shows 73% of Pennsylvanians support ESAs—and the poll was conducted before schools were closed due to COVID-19. Now that families across the state are educating their kids at home—with varying degrees of district support—it’s likely even more would support emergency ESAs.
Why do we need emergency ESAs?
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, children around the state have been out of school for weeks—many without access to educational resources. From computers and internet connections to online tutors or therapists, COVID-19 school closures have shifted a lot of unexpected expenses on families. Emergency ESAs would give parents financial resources to cope with these and other costs associated with schooling at home.
Many schools pivoted to remote education very efficiently. The statewide cyber charters, not surprisingly, made the transition almost seamlessly. Many brick and mortar schools—private, charter, and district—also managed a smooth switch to remote learning.
Unfortunately, several districts halted education for all students out of concerns they wouldn’t be able to reach every student equitably due to special needs or lack of internet access. The U.S. Department of Education quickly responded to these concerns with guidelines recognizing services for students with special needs would look different during this time. The guidance encouraged districts to be creative in finding ways to reach students with special needs—and discouraged them from closing learning to all students while navigating difficult situations. Emergency ESAs would enable parents to access the help their kids need rather than waiting for government bureaucracies to make broad decisions.
Private schools, many of which serve low-income and minority students, have been particularly hard hit by the crisis. While public schools continue to receive taxpayer funding, private schools are suffering as donors and tuition-paying families face steep financial challenges. Emergency ESAs could help families afford tuition—which is crucial in light of a new analysis showing Pennsylvania taxpayers face a $1.2 billion hit if just 30% of current private school students switch to local district schools.
How would emergency ESAs be funded?
When Gov. Wolf ordered schools to close on March 13, most schools were still in the third quarter. Thus, students still had at least 25% of their school year left to go. 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 providing refunds to customers because car accidents are down during the quarantine. Attorney General Josh Shapiro has even threatened $1,000-$3,000 fines to gyms that continue charging fees for services they can’t provide.
Pennsylvania taxpayers pay an average of $18,000 per public school student, which works out to around $4,500 per quarter. Providing each student with a $2,000 emergency ESA would take a portion of the fourth quarter funding and allow parents to use it for at-home learning expenses.
Where are ESAs currently operating?
- Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are geared toward students with special needs along with children in low-performing schools, foster care, or Native American reservations. Children whose parents are active duty members of the U.S. military, died serving in the military, or are blind or deaf are also eligible.
- Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program is for students with a wide variety of special needs. Florida also has a Reading Scholarship Account open to public school students in grades 3-5 who scored below a level 3 on the state English Language Arts exam.
- Mississippi’s Equal Opportunity for Students with Special Needs Program is limited to students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).
- North Carolina’s Personal Education Savings Account program covers students with special needs who meet the federal definition of a “child with disabilities” under the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).
- Tennessee’s Individualized Education Account program is limited to students with an IEP who have been diagnosed with specific conditions, such as autism, deaf-blindness, a hearing or visual impairment, an intellectual disability, an orthopedic impairment, a traumatic brain injury, or developmental delay.
How have existing ESA programs helped children and families?
- Joshua Sandoval suffers from Tuberous Sclerosis Complex, which causes his body to produce benign tumors in his brain. The tumors cause daily seizures, and his medication made it hard for him to focus. Through Florida’s ESA program, Joshua is now thriving at a school designed for children with brain issues.
- Bralyn Flowers is on the autism spectrum and is developmentally delayed. She lives in rural Florida, 50 miles away from the nearest speech pathologist. Through Florida’s ESA program, Bralyn is able to work online with a speech language pathologist from the comfort of her home. Her mom is thrilled with how well Bralyn’s communication skills have improved since she began her online speech therapy.
- Brooke Miller’s district school in Arizona worked for her siblings but not for her. Brooke has epilepsy and couldn’t handle the chaos of the classroom, despite the district’s attempts to help. The family uses Arizona’s ESA program to educate Brooke at home with the help of a special education teacher and additional therapies. The program “has changed Brooke’s life,” according to her mom.
During the COVID-19 crisis people around the world have come together to help each other cope. Digital learning companies are offering free courses. Famous musicians are broadcasting concerts from their homes—both to raise spirits and funds. Entertainment platforms are offering various free streaming options.
It’s time to bring that same “we’re in this together” attitude to K-12 education. Emergency ESAs would support families in the most flexible way possible, when they need it most. Educational impacts from COVID-19 will reverberate for years—particularly for students who are already struggling. Emergency ESAs can help stem learning losses and keep kids on a path to success.