Should Pa. convert $500M in CARES Act cash into education grants for families? A proposal has advocates split on familiar lines

Proponents of education scholarship accounts address the Senate Education committee on Monday, Oct. 5.

As a mother of four, Natalie Wallace knows exactly what she’d do if she got extra cash to cover the educational expenses her family has incurred since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She could use it to pay for therapy for her eldest daughter, a senior at a Catholic high school who’s struggling with anxiety. It would cover tutoring sessions to supplement another daughter’s online public school curriculum, and a Braille printer and computer for her son, Ben, a tenth-grader who is legally blind.

Pennsylvania lawmakers will spend the next month debating how to allocate $1 billion in unspent federal relief funds that it received from the congressional CARES Act this spring. Wallace is one school choice advocate who believes as much as half of it should go directly to families in the form of individual cash payments.

“We as parents know what our children need,” Wallace told the Senate Education Committee Monday, when she appeared with a half-dozen other advocates to debate the merits of education scholarship accounts – spending vehicles, also known as ESAs, that transfer public funds to savings accounts that families can use to subsidize educational expenses, including private school tuition.

Bills in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate would convert $500 million of Pennsylvania’s CARES Act funding into one-time cash payments of $1,000 for Pennsylvania families with school children. Parents could put the funds towards school supplies, private school tuition, tutoring or technology that they use for school work.

The grants would be awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis to families with K-12 students. Any student whose parents agree to comply with program guidelines is eligible to apply for a grant. But those who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch based on their family income levels will get priority.

Legislatures in Arizona, Florida and Nevada have enacted similar programs, giving parents broad latitude to spend taxpayer-funded grants on schooling.

But because those programs do not tie the cash assistance to traditional state assessments, it’s difficult to assess whether they translate into educational gains for children, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

The proposal has cleaved Pennsylvania’s deep-pocketed education interest groups on familiar lines, pitting traditional public school groups against those that want to give families greater flexibility to opt out of traditional public education.

One of the proposal’s main supporters is the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market research and advocacy group based in Harrisburg. The foundation has previously pushed to expand Pennsylvania’s educational improvement tax credit program, which gives tax breaks to businesses that donate to private school scholarship funds.

The foundation argues that educational savings accounts are “the next frontier” in school choice because they provide even more flexibility to parents.

And while the group has been advocating for ESAs for more than a year, it says there’s bound to be plenty of demand for cash assistance this fall, since many of Pennsylvania school districts have resumed instruction on a part-time basis.

The collapse of the traditional school schedule has forced working families to find alternative arrangements for child care or supplement school curriculum with private tutoring. State officials have also expressed fear that parents may quit their jobs to provide child care and assistance to children who were forced into remote learning.

“These unexpected costs are hitting families at the same time, as many are experiencing lost income,” Colleen Hroncich, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, told lawmakers Monday. “I’ve talked to parents all across the state and I haven’t [met] a single one who doesn’t need help.”

Associations representing public school teachers and principals, on the other hand, say the unspent CARES Act money would benefit more kids if it were distributed equitably among the state’s 500 public school districts.

Pennsylvania’s public schools and charter schools enroll 1.8 million school children. Under the current ESA budget proposal, only 500,000 of them would get grants.

Traditional schools have incurred new expenses as they rapidly shifted students to remote education, and have seen their budgets for facilities maintenance and transportation explode as they try to follow social distancing guidelines.

Traditional public schools expect to lose a collective $1 billion in local revenue this year, according to an analysis by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officers, or PASBO.

And while public schools have already received millions of dollars in federal funds, “it really pales in comparison to the need that is out there and the ongoing scope of all of this,” Hannah Barrick, PASBO’s assistant executive director, said Monday.

Opponents also argue that there isn’t enough academic or financial accountability built into the proposed ESA program. It requires families to tell the state when their student graduates from high school, but otherwise shields the student’s academic records from state regulators.

The legislation also allows families to roll over remaining balances in their savings accounts from year to year, and gives them up to two years after a student’s graduation to spend them on educational expenses.

Advocates debated the proposal for two hours on Monday but did not schedule a vote on it. It’s unclear whether they will reconvene to advance it out of committee this month, since the chamber has only four more session days scheduled in October.

A companion bill was due for a vote in the House Education committee last week, but the meeting was called off after a House lawmaker announced he’d tested positive for COVID-19.