Prior to the Acting Secretary of Health’s school mask mandate, schools were tasked with making decisions not only on academics, but on health and safety plans regarding the ongoing pandemic. These decisions are never easy for board members, but the past few months have been especially challenging due to the heightened division in our towns and across the country. The Acting Secretary’s mandate only worsened this rift and created further confusion and frustration.
We’ve consistently argued that local control is vital to addressing the unique needs and wants of our students. The issues facing Lancaster County schools will not be the same for schools in Allegheny or Tioga Counties. We have a diverse state with diverse challenges, and schools should always have the ability to hear the needs and wants of their students and families and make the best decisions to meet them.
Though the majority of parents and students may currently be satisfied, no district plan or policy will fully meet the needs of every student despite the best and sincere efforts of our local school boards. And in the current debate about health and safety plans, as well as academic plans to make up the learning loss of the past year, parents deserve additional options when making decisions about the health, safety, and education of their children.
To that end, we are proposing the establishment of a temporary education saving account program. Under our proposals, parents of school-aged children would be eligible for an education savings account if the school that was chosen for them by their zip code is not meeting their child’s education or health needs.
Eligible parents would be authorized to use money transferred into an education savings account to offset costs associated with educational alternatives to their public school which could include services such as tutors, at-home instructional content, tuition, and testing. By removing financial barriers to accessing these valuable tools, Pennsylvania students struggling with learning loss will have a greater chance of getting back on track.
This temporary program would expire when the state exits the pandemic and moves into the endemic phase of COVID-19 and would be paid for using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. In utilizing federal funds, this program would not financially disadvantage public schools as no current education appropriation would be altered or reduced.
We sincerely believe that parents and school boards alike are genuinely trying to make the best decisions for their children and students. At times, as we see now, opinions on policies can differ. In this unique era of COVID-19, schools must have the flexibility to enact the best policies for their students, and families must have the ability to seek alternatives to those policies when they do not meet the needs of their children. In providing more options, it is our hope that this proposal can relieve some of the tension between parents and their school boards.
While we continue the legal argument of statewide mask mandates in court and parents engage more on policy and curriculum, this proposal could be an opportunity not only for all parents to feel comfortable and confident in the health and education policies impacting their children, but also to make some serious headway on addressing the pandemic-induced learning loss in the next generation.
These unique times and the challenges that accompany it require innovative thinking, expanded opportunities, and understanding from all sides. Education Savings Accounts will increase access to expanded educational options, offering students, parents, teachers, and school boards alike more learning opportunities that are better suited for all.