If We Want Students To Stay On Track, Send School Funds To Their Parents
Colleen Hroncich
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Many of the problems exacerbated by COVID-19 already existed. This is particularly true in education, where innovation and flexibility have been sorely needed. When schools around the country first closed in mid-March, almost no one expected it would last the rest of the school year. In my home state of Pennsylvania, as with many others, even schools in rural areas nearly untouched by the virus were forbidden to reopen.

Schools nationwide have had varying degrees of success with remote learning. In Pennsylvania, every Catholic school had already taken advantage of a 2019 law allowing them to pre-plan for up to five “flexible instruction days,” conducted remotely, per school year. This gave them a head start when school closures were announced because they already had the first week mapped out. In contrast, only 72 of the state’s 500 school districts participated in the program.

It’s not surprising that tuition-funded schools were prepared to operate in case of emergency. If schools of choice drop the ball, families and their tuition dollars go elsewhere. In the government-run school sector, the incentive structure doesn’t work that way. In Pennsylvania especially, enrollment does not affect the majority of school district funding.

Where does this leave us as schools prepare for a new year? Like many issues in our highly charged political climate, education has become enmeshed in controversy. President Trump jumped into the fray by threatening to withhold funding from schools that don’t fully reopen. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos later clarified that the administration would like to send federal education dollars directly to parents if their children’s schools don’t open.

The executive branch lacks the authority to redirect those funds, but the idea is logical. Education funding is meant to educate students. If schools are unable to do that, why should they get those funds? Let money follow students rather than make students follow the money.

Now with politicians, school leaders, and teachers’ unions duking it out in the court of public opinion, parents and kids risk being left out of decision-making.

There’s a better way. Pennsylvania state Sen. Judy Ward and Rep. Clint Owlett have introduced Back on Track Education Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) legislation. The bill would establish restricted-use accounts funded with a portion of the money Pennsylvania received through the federal CARES Act. The program would function much like electronic benefits transfer cards for food stamps or health savings accounts in that the money could be used only for approved purchases, such as tuition, curriculum, tutoring, counseling, and special needs services.

To ensure help flows where it’s needed most, scholarship funding will be prioritized for families earning 185 percent of the federal poverty level: $40,182 for a family of three.

Back on Track ESAs will enable parents, rather than government bureaucrats, to determine what help their children need, and the scholarships will help address many of the education challenges we’re facing due to coronavirus.

  • Students have missed several months of in-person learning. For some, tutoring will be enough to catch them up. Others might need a completely new environment. Back on Track ESAs will help families afford whichever option works best for their children.
  • Schools are trying to maintain social distance in classrooms and on buses, and some parents are nervous about sending their kids back to the classroom. Back on Track ESAs will help them pay for at-home learning expenses or equip them to choose other options.
  • The pandemic has caused financial pain for many families, which will make it hard for some kids to stay in their current private school. Back on Track ESAs can help them stay where they are, providing them much-needed stability.

Every state should consider similar solutions as they plan for a new school year. By directing some of the already-appropriated federal relief funds to students, state leaders can ensure families have the flexibility to handle educational challenges.

As a homeschooling mother of four, I knew long before the pandemic that education isn’t one-size-fits-all. Now that kids across the country have been sent home to learn, more and more parents are seeing cracks in the system.

We all long for the “good ol’ days” without quarantines and masks. But those days weren’t always good, and we can make tomorrow better through smarter policies that address root problems. The focus of education should be on students, not the system. Back on Track ESAs will help get us there.

Colleen Hroncich is a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.

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