(The Center Square) – A Pennsylvania state senator wants to use federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act to expand school choice options during the pandemic.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, has introduced Senate Bill 1015 to create education savings accounts (ESAs) that Pennsylvania families can use to offset education costs for alternatives to public schools, funded through the state’s share of federal American Rescue Plan Act money.

“Parents have seen the negative impact on their children from not having in-person instruction,” Aument said. “If schools will not remain open, students and their families deserve options to ensure every child receives a high-quality education.”

Aument pointed to evidence that many students do not perform well through remote learning and the broader impact on society from keeping kids home from school.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization document on the “adverse consequences of school closures” said closures can contribute to problems with student nutrition, stress for teachers and parents, a rise in dropout rates, increased exposure to violence and exploitation, social isolation and challenges measuring and validating learning.

SB 1015 would create a universal fund parents can use to send their child to a school of their choice, using money transferred to an ESA to cover tuition and other expenses.

“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,” Aument wrote in an op-ed posted to his website. “Education Savings Accounts will increase access to expanded educational options, offering students, parents, and teachers alike more learning opportunities that are better suited for all.”

‘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.’

Aument said that by using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, SB 1015 would not affect funding for public schools in the same way as other proposals for ESAs, which deduct a portion of a school’s per-pupil funding for the accounts.

The Pandemic Education Savings Account Grant Program in SB 1015 would be available to families with income no greater than 185% of the federal poverty level and where “the school-age child attends a public school where the school-age child is subject to COVID-19 incongruence.”

“If a parent of a school-age child enters into an agreement … with the (education) department for a school year, the Secretary of Education shall approve a $7,000 grant for that school year … and the department shall transfer quarterly payments for a total of $7,000 from the COVID-State Fiscal Recovery Restricted Account into the eligible student’s account,” the bill reads.

Parents would be required to show proof of purchase for expenses from the account, which may include supplies to protect from COVID-19, such as masks and hand sanitizer; tuition and fees; textbooks and uniforms; tutoring and testing expenses; curriculum; computer hardware and software; counseling; transportation; and special services for students with disabilities.

Any money remaining in the account after a student graduates high school would remain available for expenses for higher education for two years.

“This temporary program would expire when the state exits the pandemic and moves into the endemic phase of COVID-19,” according to an Aument press release.

SB 1015 would cap the cost of the program at $500 million.

“If parents feel strongly about their school district’s COVID-19 policies, they should have the opportunity to send their child to a school that better suits their needs,” Aument said. “Parents know what is best for their child, so empowering them to choose the best school for their family will help improve educational outcomes across the board.”

SB 1015 is assigned to the Senate Education Committee.

Victor Skinner writes for The Center Square.

This article was republished with permission from The Center Square.

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