A proposed grant program that would provide 500,000 Pennsylvania K-12 students with $1,000 to spend on education expenses was vetted by the Pennsylvania Senate Education Committee on Monday.
The program is viewed by supporters as a lifeline for students at risk of falling behind in their schooling due to schools’ COVID-19-related switch to remote learning.
But others see it as a foot in the door that will lead to a full-fledged school voucher program. They argue there are better uses for that $500 million that it proposes to spend. Among their suggestions, using it to help school districts with their unanticipated pandemic-related costs and an estimated $1 billion in lost revenue due to the pandemic. Or they recommend putting the money toward extending internet service to rural and underserved communities or to provide resources to serve students and staff’s physical and mental health needs arising from stresses caused by the coronavirus.
Senate Bill 1230, sponsored by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair County, proposes to use about half of the unspent federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding Pennsylvania received to create what she calls the “Back on Track” education savings account program.
It would initially target the grants placed in accounts at the state Treasury to children who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunches. Any money leftover would be made available to other families on a first-come, first-served basis.
The money could be used for a restricted list of education-related items such as tutoring, services for students with disabilities, computers, counseling, and private school tuition.
At Monday’s Senate committee hearing, Ward said the bill is intended to provide parents with money to buy whatever their children need to avoid falling behind academically regardless of where they are educated.
“This would help students in public schools make up for lost schooling through tutoring online programs or other educational services. There are also kids who currently are in private school who will have trouble staying there due to reduced family incomes,” Ward said. “An additional $1,000 can be extremely helpful to a family struggling to meet tuition obligations.”
It is that latter use of the funds that raises “real red flags for many of us,” said Pennsylvania State Education Association President Rich Askey. He participated on a panel with officials from organizations representing school business officers, administrators and school boards, all of whom voiced opposition to Ward’s bill.
Askey said calling them education savings accounts masks what they are really are: school voucher schemes that drive public funds to private education entities. He said that may not be Ward’s intent but that’s the potential impact her bill has.
“The impact is one of harm, the harm of a statutory foothold for a broader expansion of school vouchers in Pennsylvania,” Askey said.
Further, Eric Eshbach, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association, said the way he sees it, this bill creates winners and losers in that it would only serve about a quarter of Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. He said his group thinks it would be best to invest that $500 million in a public works project to study and build a broadband network that would be free for students in rural and underserved areas.
Other panelists maintained there is little in the way of accountability built into the bill to ensure the money is spent as intended. Further, they argued that it would be more beneficial to ensure school districts that educate the bulk of Pennsylvania’s students have the resources they need to get students back on track.
But Colleen Hroncich , senior policy analyst for the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, expressed disappointment at their arguments.
She said schools, day cares, hospitals, nursing homes, all already received some government-funded COVID-19 relief assistance. This bill seeks to create a program to help all families regardless of what school type their children are in to get the help they need.
“That’s what ‘Back on Track’ is all about,” said Hroncich, who participated on a panel with a mother of four, and representatives from parochial schools and school choice groups.
As for those who raised concerns about it opening the door to school vouchers, Hroncich said, “Let’s be real. ‘Back on Track’ grants are a one-time deposit of $1,000. That’s not going to drive a mass exodus from public schools …. It’s very interesting that they fear that it will.”
Ashley DeMauro Mullins, northeast regional legislative director for ExcelinEd, a school reform advocacy group, said in her view, what this bill does is direct help to families who may not have the financial resources to obtain the tools their children need.
“Pennsylvania isn’t alone in proposing the use of federal CARES dollars to get these resources into the hands of families,” DeMauro Mullins said. Oklahoma and Idaho, for example, are doing something similar to what Senate Bill 1230 seeks to do.
She added: “I hope that you’ll agree that putting the needs of students first, and using these dollars to minimize learning loss is a critical investment that we can’t afford not to make right now.”
Jan Murphy may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.