By Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair/Fulton/Cumberland/Franklin/Huntingdon) and Rep. Clint Owlett (R-Tioga/Bradford/Potter)
With the start of the school year fast approaching, everyone from parents and students to teachers and school administrators is likely feeling anxious about what lies ahead. So many kids want and need to go back to the classroom, and our school district officials across the state are working hard to make that happen safely. But whether a student chooses to return to the school building or to learn at home, that student deserves the very best education possible.
When schools were closed last spring, our teachers and parents did the very best they could to continue our children’s learning remotely. Some students continued to thrive but others struggled to cope with such a drastic change, and as a result, those students could face additional challenges this fall. That’s why we are proud to sponsor innovative legislation in our respective chambers to bring Back on Track education scholarship accounts (ESAs) to families in need of additional learning support.
Our Back on Track scholarship proposals—Senate Bill 1230 and House Bill 2696—would help families cope with learning losses and financial costs. These scholarships would provide $1,000 to parents for each K-12 student—prioritizing low-income students first—to be used for educational expenses such as tuition, tutoring, counseling, curriculum, supplies, or services for students with special needs.
Back on Track ESAs acknowledge that each student’s needs are unique. Even before school closures there were considerable achievement gaps within classrooms across the Commonwealth. New research predicts these gaps will be even greater when schools reopen. Parents deserve all the help they can get to close those gaps.
Sadly, when students fall behind it has lasting effects. Dr. Eric Hanushek of Stanford University estimates school closures will reduce students’ lifetime earnings by 3% to 6%. For disadvantaged students, the impact is even larger. Back on Track ESAs can help stop the losses and put them on a better path.
Many families have taken a large financial hit due to the pandemic. This will help students in public schools make up for lost schooling through tutoring, online programs, or other educational services— that way teachers to make faster progress this fall. There are also kids who are currently in private schools who will have trouble staying there due to reduced family incomes. Back on Track ESAs can help them remain in their current school, which is particularly important during such a stressful time.
How will we pay for these scholarships? More than $1 billion from the federal CARES Act currently sits idle. These funds must be used for coronavirus-related expenses by the end of the year. By using less than half of the remaining funds, we can help 500,000 Pennsylvania kids get the help they need.
Unique challenges require a unique approach. Districts and communities are working to safely resume in-person education this fall, but no school district plan will meet the needs of every student. Back on Track ESAs would empower parents to get their kids the individualized help they need to succeed.