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Lawmakers are divided education expenses proposal

Education in Pennsylvania remains a hot button topic, and as a state Senate committee heard testimony this week on a bill that would give families stimulus funding for educational-related expenses, one lawmaker called for a truce.

That was state Sen. Andy Dinniman’s hope when the Senate Education Committee’s hearing started. The panel heard from both proponents and opponents of Senate Bill 1230, which would give families $1,000 per child for educational purposes. The money could be used by parents to buy a computer for their kids’ remote learning, pay for tutoring or even cover private school tuition bills.

“Whether you like this bill or you don’t like this bill, what is happening in our schools is a problem,” said Dinniman, the West Chester Democrat and minority chair on the committee. “We have to come together to solve this problem, and we have to stop the educational wars that go on.”

After Monday’s hearing, while both sides may be interested in an armistice, they remain far apart and their differences on SB 1230 show why.

State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Hollidaysburg, said the purpose of the bill is to use federal CARES Act funding to help parents ensure their children do not fall behind academically as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, which forced schools to close last spring and prompted many to continue at least some form of remote learning this fall.

Public education advocates like aspects of the bill but wonder if the $500 million set aside could be put to better use, such as developing a statewide broadband network that could be utilized by students in rural and underserved areas at no cost. Students in those areas have had a tougher time adjusting to the nontraditional learning environment.

Dr. Eric Eshbach, the assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania Principals Association, also feared that low-income students whose parents and guardians may not have the resources to apply for the funding. He added that at best the funding would help about 25 percent of school-age children in the public education system.

“The proposed legislation creates a system of winners and losers and does not address the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the education of every child in every school and in every community across Pennsylvania,” he said.

However, Colleen Hroncich, a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, said that school systems rather than opposing the bill could use that energy to ensure low-income students and their families are aware of the program, if it passes, through outreach efforts in the schools.

She said the foundation supports Ward’s bill because while families have incurred extra costs because of remote learning, the impact on each family has been different.

“You know who does know what each individual child needs? Their parents, and that’s what ‘Back on Track’ is all about,” she said.

State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Pittsburgh, raised concerns that the bill only gives low-income families a short time frame to apply for the funding before it becomes available for all families in the state. She said she’s concerned it could wind up like the federal Paycheck Protection Program, where those who had the resources to apply actually get the funding.

“How are we going to actually make sure that this does anything for low-income families?” Williams asked.

When asked by Williams if she’d have a problem if it were solely need-based, Hroncich declined to speak on behalf of her organization but said she personally would not have any issue with that.

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