Arguments have been raging for months in Pennsylvania over how best to proceed with education during the coronavirus pandemic. Finding the solution that everyone can agree on for keeping children, teachers and staff safe while also maximizing the potential for learning has proven to be difficult, if not impossible.

One potential method to at least address the possible learning deficits that have been seen is found in a pair of bills proposed in each chamber of the Legislature. Sen. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, and Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro, are the sponsors of legislation that would create the “Back on Track Education Scholarship Account Program.”

Owlett's bill also has a Democratic cosponsor.

The idea, according to their cosponsorship memos, is to use funds available to the state from the federal CARES Act to give as many as 500,000 Pennsylvania families $1,000 each to use for education-related expenses.

“This will help students in public schools make up for lost schooling through tutoring, online programs, or other educational services – that way teachers [can] make faster progress this fall,” Ward and Owlett said in a joint news release. “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.”

The funds would initially be available only to families making 185 percent of the federally defined poverty level, or about $40,000 for a family of three, according to Marc LeBlond of the Commonwealth Foundation, a public policy organization. After a mid-November deadline, the means testing requirement would expire and anyone could apply.

Bills relating to school choice and funding that can be used for private school or public charter school tuition have at times been part of fraught discussions in Pennsylvania. Last year, for instance, Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a bill that would have massively increased the availability of educational improvement tax credits, which fund private school tuition.

But to LeBlond, the one-time nature of the Back on Track bills, combined with the wide range of possible uses for the funds, should mitigate against a partisan divide on the topic. While school choice bills are sometimes attacked as being harmful to the public school system, the Ward and Owlett bills stand to benefit any family, regardless of what kind of school their children attend, he added.

“We're really looking at it like emergency pandemic relief, sort of like the bailout that everybody got the first two rounds of bailouts, something directly for the families,” LeBlond said. “I don't think you would see with this widespread school switching, necessarily, because it's a one-time infusion of $1,000. People probably aren't going to switch from their district school to a private school.”

There is a bit of a time crunch, however. With the school year starting up within a few weeks and the CARES Acts funds needing to be used by the end of the year, lawmakers will need to move quickly to get the program up and running.

LeBlond noted that even if the upcoming school year was to return to near normalcy – an unlikely proposition – the students of Pennsylvania have already seen their education degraded by the rocky end to the 2019-20 school year, in the early months of the pandemic. He cited the work of Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, who calculated that the impact of last school year’s interrupted instruction could mean as much as a 6 percent cut in lifetime earnings for the students who were affected.

“If a family's had some kind of hardship, parents lost a job, they lost income, they can't pay tuition,” he said. “And we're seeing that. We're seeing a lot of that go around, the loss of income. In places like Philadelphia, you have low income families, and they're making say $32,000 a year, $2,000 of that's going to tuition, which is really colossal, and that's your household income. And so this can offset that in some way.”

The Ward and Owlett bills are currently pending in the Education Committees of each respective chamber, and they could be taken up when lawmakers return to Harrisburg in September.

The bill's cosponsors in the Senate are Republican Sens. Ryan Aument, Camera Bartolotta, Scott Martin, Kristin Phillips-Hill and Pat Stefano. In the House, the cosponsors are Democratic Rep. Danilo Burgos of Philadelphia and Republican Reps. Barb Gleim, Steven Mentzer, Greg Rothman, Tarah Toohil, Jesse Topper and David Zimmerman.
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