Pennsylvania school-choice advocates are pushing hard for a measure that would send federal coronavirus relief money directly to families to put towards private school tuition, tutoring, or other educational expenses.
Two companion bills have quickly risen in the education committees in the Republican-controlled House and Senate, with the latter debating a proposal this week.
Supporters see these “Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts” as a lifeline for families struggling to educate their kids amid unprecedented disruption to traditional schooling.
“The money should go directly to the students and families rather than going back into a system that has chosen not to support the students in their time of need,” said Natalie Wallace, a mother of four from Montgomery County who lamented virtual school special education services. “This is the solution and we’re running out of time.”
The state would use up to $500 million in its discretionary CARES Act funding and parcel it out in $1,000-per-student increments to families with school-aged kids who apply for the one-time scholarships.
Families could use that money on educational expenses, as defined in the bill, including private school tuition, tutoring, computer hardware, counseling, standardized testing fees, textbooks, and curricula.
The application process would open to low-income families first. After that initial window passes, the state would award scholarships on a first-come-first-served basis until families have claimed all the available dollars.
Opponents see the bills as a slippery slope towards instituting a full-scale voucher program, which they believe will corrode the fiscal stability of public schools.
In the short term, they fear the program, as designed, would mostly benefit parents with the wherewithal to take advantage of a niche policy change.
“This bill gives too little to too few,” said Eric Eshbach, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Principals Association. “It targets the haves over the have-nots.”
As the bill is written now, the scholarships could reach as many as 500,000 Pennsylvania students. If enacted, the program would use up a large portion of the roughly $1 billion Pennsylvania still has in CARES Act funding.
“Parents are looking for educational resources,” said Ashley DeMauro Mullins, Northeast Regional Advocacy Director for ExcelinEd, an education reform organization. “‘Back on Track’ would be the one-time educational stimulus they need.”
The House version of the bill was set to get a committee vote last week, but was postponed after a lawmaker tested positive for coronavirus on the day of the hearing.
Public school advocates accused the GOP of leveraging a financial crisis to test-drive a voucher-style system that could divert federal taxpayer dollars to private schools.
“We should not use valuable pandemic relief funds to create a costly new government program that spends precious resources on private, religious schools and would provide a statutory basis to expand vouchers in the future,” said John Callahan, chief advocacy officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
The bill’s critics said the proposed program revives the voucher debate and serves only to advance a partisan agenda — distracting from the larger attempt to deliver quality public education during a pandemic.
“The way we get through [this] is not by building walls, but by building bridges,” said Eshbach.
The bill’s opponents also argued that the state’s public school system — which educates 1.7 million students — desperately needs the money that the “Back on Track” scholarships would use. Traditional districts face falling local tax revenue because of the lagging economy, they say, and rising costs tied to PPE and technology purchases.
“The bottom line is that providing additional COVID funds to Pennsylvania students and schools is certainly essential,” said Hannah Barrick, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers. “[This bill] is not the way to do that.”
Barrick and other bill opponents who testified Monday said they don’t yet know the cost increases district and charter schools have incurred because of COVID, but they believe the amount is significant.
Pennsylvania lawmakers did decide to hold state funding steady for public schools this fiscal year, despite a significant hole in the commonwealth’s budget. The state has already received a little over half a billion dollars for K-12 education through the federal stimulus program that’s supported districts, charters and some private schools.
Voucher skeptics often argue that a student-centered funding model would take state taxpayer money earmarked for public schools and pump it into private schools that don’t have the same oversight and accountability. In this case, the political calculus is different because the money in question is not set aside for education, but part of a larger, federally-backed virus-relief fund.
Still, the bill’s opponents say, it’s bad precedent to take public money and allow families to use it for private education.
Many school-choice advocates have long sought a funding model where families receive taxpayer money for education purposes and can use that money as they see fit.
For the last two decades, Pennsylvania has sponsored a tax-credit program that allows companies and individuals to take a tax break if they donate money for private school scholarships.
Several said Monday that this moment — more than any before it — calls for quick action that allows financially strapped parents to pay a deferred tuition bill, hire a tutor, or buy a laptop. The public school system, they argued, is simply not nimble enough to meet the sprawling education needs of families right now.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has opposed voucher-style proposals, also rejects this iteration.
“The proposals direct federal funding that should be used to help public schools deal with the COVID crisis to a voucher program that would benefit the wealthy, and denies public schools this critical relief at a moment when state and local governments face steep reductions in revenue on top of growing costs for coronavirus relief,” Wolf’s office said in a statement.
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