Some Pennsylvania homes suddenly are getting a little crowded with young students who are drawing from the same internet connection.  

That’s one reason why Najimah Roberson, a Harrisburg parent with three children pursuing online learning, is keen on the idea of getting some of her tax dollars back in the form of scholarship funds that may be used to cover unexpected education costs.

Since Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, first announced closure of the commonwealth’s schools in mid-March to protect against the spread of COVID-19, Roberson has had to pivot and adjust to new realities. 

Like many other parents, she has some hard decisions to make before school is back in session.

“None of my kids will be going to a brick-and-mortar school this year,” Roberson said in an interview with The Daily Signal. “All three of their schools are willing to accommodate online learning, but this puts me in a bind because all three of my kids are at home with a laptop or desktop or tablet pulling from the same internet source.”

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The proposed “Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts,” up for consideration in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, are designed with parents such as Roberson in mind. 

“I could use the ‘Back on Track’ funding to make sure my kids have a successful school year,” she said. “These funds will help to offset some of the purchasing I need to do for homeschooling my children. I’ll be looking into internet services and school supplies. Also, I’ll need special tutoring to help my disabled son.”

Education scholarship accounts are restricted-use accounts similar to health savings accounts, 529 college plans, or electronic benefits transfer cards for food stamps. Parents are using the accounts in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. 

The accounts would be a first for Pennsylvania and its 500 public school districts, but the “Back on Track” proposal is distinct from what is up and running in other states because it specifically is tied in with the fallout from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Unlike other education savings accounts, widely known as ESAs, “Back on Track” funds would not be limited to the school year and could be available in the summer to help students prepare for upcoming classes. They also would be available to K-12 students regardless of what kind of school they attend, be they public or private. 

State Sen. Judy Ward and state Rep. Clint Owlett, both Republicans, are pushing companion bills that would make $1,000 in “Back on Track” funds available to families that qualify for the free and reduced-price lunch program (a family of three with a household income under $40,182, for example). 

After analyzing household incomes based on the guidelines for the lunch program, the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank based in Harrisburg, estimates that about 600,000 children across the state would qualify for the $1,000.

Funds for “Back on Track” will come from the $1.3 billion that remains on the table in Pennsylvania from Congress’ passage of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act.

Ward, who represents the 30th District (which cuts across Blair, Huntington, Cumberland, Fulton, and Franklin counties), is the sponsor of SB 1230; Owlett, who represents the 68th District (which includes Bradford, Potter, and Tioga counties, is the sponsor of HB 2696. 

Their bills remain in committee. With the new school year set to begin as early as Wednesday in some districts and many families still reeling from the impact of COVID-19, both lawmakers see an urgent need for the colleagues to move on their proposals. 

“I’ve been a fan of education savings accounts for a long time, and this is certainly the time to do this legislation with our students missing all of the spring,” Ward told The Daily Signal in an interview. “It’s a great option for parents facing uncertainty going into the fall. Every child is a unique learner, which is why I’ve been supportive of parents’ making their own decisions and their own choices when it comes to education for their children.”

‘Greater Flexibility’

As governor, Wolf issued reopening guidance for the 2020-2021 school year that addresses the challenges of COVID-19. The “safe return to in-person instruction will look different across every school, district, and county depending on a variety of factors, one of which is the spread of COVID-19,” according to the guidance. 

Wolf’s recommendations are based on the “incidence rate” and “percent positivity” of diagnostic testing for the coronavirus. The governor recommends that school officials select from one of three “instructional models” that allow for full in-person learning, full virtual learning, or a hybrid model that blends online learning with in-person instruction.

Since it’s not clear what direction many schools will go in and how students can make up for the time they lost, Ward says, she sees a strong potential for ESAs to gain traction in coming weeks. 

“My core belief is that parents should have greater flexibility to educate their children as they see fit, and ‘Back on Track’ can help to address their unique educational needs,” she said. “The scholarship funds could be used to pay for private school tuition, online classes for enrichment, homeschooling, tutoring, counseling, and special needs.”

The costs that have accrued in the past few months from at-home learning stand out to Colleen Hroncich as one area where “Back on Track” would be particularly applicable. 

The scholarship funds could “empower parents” with the resources and tools they need to address any “gaps in learning” that emerged while schools have been closed, said Hroncich, a senior policy analyst with the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank.

She points to new research indicating that students will be beset with “achievement gaps” when schools reopen. 

“School districts are already struggling to plan the new school year,” Hroncich told The Daily Signal. “Equipping parents with the resources they need to accommodate the educational needs of their children would allow districts to keep the focus on safely re-opening schools. For those parents who feel unsafe sending their children to schools, ‘Back on Track’ will help those families afford alternative options.”

Hroncich also encourages Harrisburg policymakers to consider the implications of a “flood of new students” in in-person classes who no longer may be able to afford private school tuition without more assistance. If this surge in students were to occur, she said, she expects that it will become more difficult for public schools to practice the social distancing needed as a safeguard against COVID-19.

‘Educational Continuity

Since the funds for “Back on Track” would be allocated from CARES Act money that already is in circulation, Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, views the accounts as a fiscally responsible policy choice that can be applied to the specific needs of families. 

Burke has written in opposition to the Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection, and Schools Act, known as the HEALS Act, which is now before Congress. Instead of burdening taxpayers with another “bailout,” she said, Congress should provide states with more flexibility and say over how existing federal education dollars are spent. 

Burke said she supports “Back on Track” because the scholarship plan uses existing resources and provides parents with just enough funds to deliver alternative forms of education to their children. 

“What’s lacking right now is educational continuity for these kids,” Burke said. “With schools still largely closed to in-person instruction using this CARES funding, the existing funding to provide something like ‘Back on Track’ is a smart way for Pennsylvania to use federal dollars that have already been allocated.”

One option Burke suggests that Pennsylvania families might consider is forming their own “pandemic pods,” which have been rising up across the country. The pods typically involve families who pull together four to 10 students, find a space that can accommodate them, and hire a teacher who can instruct the children for several hours at a time during the week. 

“There’s a silver lining to this pandemic because it gives families an opportunity to step back and ask themselves if there is a better option and to see if there is a better way forward for their children,” Burke said, adding:

It also gives the state an opportunity to reconsider if residential assignment where kids are assigned to a district run, government-funded schools with few options is really the best way to deliver K-12 education. The pandemic has given families and policymakers an opportunity to reimagine what the education system could look like moving forward.

Roberson, the Harrisburg parent, said she views the COVID-19 school shutdowns as a “learning lesson” for lawmakers because it has “forced them to allow” homeschooling options to continue that previously were in danger of being shut down. She points to the Commonwealth Charter Academy, a public cyber-charter school in Pennsylvania, as an example.

“Before COVID-19, they were trying to close down this school,” she said. “But COVID-19 made them realize they can’t do this right now. I know a lot of parents who have left the Harrisburg school district knowing they could have virtual courses in Harrisburg, but they are still signing up for CCA [Commonwealth Charter Academy]. A lot of parents would be protesting if they had no choice but to send their kids back to brick-and-mortar schools.”

‘A Win for Parents’

Ashley DeMauro Mullins, the northeast regional advocacy director for ExcelinEd, a national nonprofit devoted to education reform, said she sees Pennsylvania as playing a critical role within the broader school choice movement across the country. 

Mullins points out that the state’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit, and a companion program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, have saved taxpayers money while providing private school scholarships to low-income families with K-12 students.

By embracing education scholarship accounts, Pennsylvania is demonstrating how policymakers can approach education reform on multiple fronts, Mullins told The Daily Signal:

What we saw in the spring when schools had to close was really inequitable education across the state and across the nation. There were some schools that were ready to meet the needs of their students virtually or remotely and then there were some that scrambled. 

So, by giving parents the ability to make sure their student’s needs are met with something like ‘Back on Track,’ it’s a win for parents, it’s a win for students, and it’s a win for teachers. In fact, it’s a new opportunity for teachers who maybe can’t go back into the classroom, but they could be recruited as tutors.

The Commonwealth Foundation released poll results that show broad support among Pennsylvania voters for school choice initiatives, including tax credit scholarships, charter schools, and education scholarship accounts.