With about $1 billion of unspent federal CARES Act funding sitting on the table, Pennsylvania policymakers have offered up a variety of ways to spend it from small business assistance to mortgage and rental assistance.
But none of the proposals are more controversial than one being floated that has some believing it could be the lead-up to a full-fledged school voucher program.
The Senate Education Committee on Monday is holding an 11 a.m. hearing on Senate Bill 1230, sponsored by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair County, that would direct as much as $500 million of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding to create what she calls the “Back on Track” education savings account program.
It would direct the state Department of Education to provide parents with a $1,000 grant for each school-age child. The money would be placed in an account at the state Treasury.
The grants could be used for eligible educational expenses including tutoring, counseling, computer hardware or software, curriculum, supplies, services for student with special needs, and private school tuition, among a few others.
Ward sees the program as a way to help students recover from academic losses incurred last spring, when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all schools to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as those who continue to learn remotely this school year.
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“Our teachers and parents did the best they could to provide children with remote learning. Some students did well with that. But others struggled and it was difficult for them. So as a result of that, going into this school year, they’re even more behind,” Ward said. “This is a way to help students as the bill says, get back on track.”
First priority in the distribution of the grants would be given to families who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches. So, for example, a family of three with an income up to $40,182 would fall into that category. Any remaining money would be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
The House Education Committee last week was scheduled to vote on a similar bill that had been offered in that chamber but without offering a public explanation, chose to not consider it. Messages left for Rep. Curt Sonney, an Erie County Republican and the committee chairman, were not returned.
Critics of that proposal as well as Ward’s bill include the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, as well as a legion of 27 other education and advocacy organizations. They see this idea as an attempt to gain a foothold to later advance a school voucher program.
“A costly private and religious school program is the last thing Pennsylvania should be using COVID-19 relief money to fund,” said Rich Askey, PSEA president.
He argues that the public schools, which educate 98% of the state’s students, are facing a combined shortfall of $1 billion. That is where the unspent CARES funds should go to help districts pay for personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, technology, and other unforeseen expenses districts incurred to educate students during this pandemic .
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said, “It’s really disappointing that lawmakers are exploiting COVID-19 to advance school privatization agenda right now.”
Ward maintains opponents of her bill misunderstand its intent.
“It’s just an option for parents who want to help their children with their education and just for enrichment purposes,” she said.
Admittedly, Ward added parents could use the money to help pay private school tuition or homeschooling curriculum, but she thinks that should be allowed.
“For a parent who has lost a job, they may not be able to keep their student in a place that they choose,” she said. Besides, Ward added, “A thousand dollars isn’t going to go very far towards private tuition.”
Colleen Hroncich, a senior policy analyst for the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, agrees that amount of money is not going to cause a mass exodus from public schools. Further, she said it’s laughable to suggest this bill seeks to exploit the pandemic to advance school choice. She insists it’s not a school choice bill.
“It’s without regard to what type of school they are choosing because the government closed all schools. It wasn’t like the government closed only certain sectors,” Hroncich said. “The impact of that is different on different families and that’s why this has so much flexibility built into it to allow those families to get the help their kids need.”
She shared the story of a woman from Tioga County who said her daughter was forced to do school work on a small computer tablet because they didn’t have another computer at home and the school didn’t provide one. She said that mother would probably use the money to buy a computer. Others might use it for tutoring, which Ward said her bill requires be provided by a certified teacher. Some might use it for counseling if their child suffered emotional trauma from the lack of socialization.
“To think there’s one answer that’s right for all the kids dealing with these tremendous challenges, it’s just not reasonable,” Hroncich said. “Right now is exactly the time where we need individual help for individual students.”
But Spicka argues that the bill provides too little accountability to ensure the money is used for appropriate educational expenses.
While Ward said the Treasury, or a hired contractor, would be tasked with monitoring the program to ensure the money is used for eligible expenses, Spicka called that questionable, given the potential scope that could lead to thousands upon thousands of accounts.
“It seems like it’s very, very susceptible to fraud,” Spicka said. “At this moment in time, spending $500 million of taxpayer money to create a new unaccountable voucher program when our public schools are facing enormous revenue shortfalls, it demonstrates a reckless disregard for the safety, well-being and education of our public school students.”
PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal said the union considers it a stretch to say this program complies with the intent of the CARES Act funding, which is supposed to go toward expenses directly related to COVID-19. Another issue that opponents raise is the absence of any requirement in the bill for this program to be audited.
“Public school entities have strict requirements for public meetings, transparency, governance, academic achievement, and financial accountability,” Askey said. “None of those requirements exist for the private companies receiving tax dollars from these education savings account vouchers.”
Hronich finds Askey’s argument against the program to be interesting in light of a statement he made at an August House Education Committee hearing. Then, Rep. Barb Gleim, R-Cumberland County, asked if the union supports assisting low-income families with new educational expenses stemming from remote learning.
“Absolutely,” Askey replied. “Any assistance that we can give those folks so their children can be successful would be important to have.”
Considering the legislative session ends on Nov. 30, it will be a heavy lift to get the measure through both chambers, quickly considering that several other attempts over the past 24 years failed to cross the finish line.
The latest was in 2017 when a vote on a similar education savings account bill offered by Sen. John DiSanto, R-Dauphin County, failed to advance out of the Senate Education Committee.
But Ward said she is excited about her bill’s prospects. She anticipates it will garner enough support to soon move out of the Senate Education Committee and be in a position for consideration by the full Senate.
But in its current form, the bill wouldn’t earn the governor’s signature.
Wolf’s spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said the bill “directs federal funding that should be used to help public schools deal with the COVID crisis and denies public schools of critical relief at a moment when state and local governments face steep reductions in revenue on top of growing costs for coronavirus relief.”
Ward said she would support the bill even if the provision allowing the money to be used for private school tuition was stripped out.
But she said the way she sees it, all students regardless of where they are being educated deserve the opportunity to be provided resources to help them get caught up.
“If you continue to let them fall through the cracks, it will take a long time. Some kids will never get caught up,” Ward said. “This just seems like a way to level the playing field and help students that really got left behind.”
Jan Murphy may be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.
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