Rep. Natalie Mihalek: Restoring our education system after covid-19

As a mom and a state representative, education is always on my mind. It pains me to see how children have been suffering throughout the covid-19 pandemic — especially when it comes to lost learning opportunities.

While schools in my area have reopened, across Pennsylvania, many children haven’t been in a classroom since last March. Having seen my own elementary-age daughters struggle with online learning, I can only imagine the hardship of those families and students who just aren’t suited for fully remote schooling.

The impact is noticeable. Parents outside of Philadelphia requested information from their local districts to see how students are faring. In one district, the number of sixth- to 12th-graders who are failing at least one class is up 80{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1} from last year. Absenteeism is up 60{c25493dcd731343503a084f08c3848bd69f9f2f05db01633325a3fd40d9cc7a1}. The same thing is happening throughout the country — and the long-term ramifications are significant. Studies have found failing even one core class can greatly reduce a student’s chance of graduating on time.

In light of these issues, parents are seeking options for their children. Now more than ever, it’s clear that education isn’t one size fits all.

What can be done to get our kids back on track? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Here in Pennsylvania, we have several types of educational choice — the perfect way to provide customized education. Educational choice isn’t just a policy position for us to debate in the General Assembly; it’s something every parent is already engaged in.

If you ask parents why they moved to a certain area, many would say “for the schools.” You may not think of it this way, but that is the most common form of school choice — moving to an area with schools you prefer.

While I have been blessed with wonderful public schools in my legislative district, each student has unique needs, and the assigned school might not work for a particular child.

In the lowest-performing schools, the majority of students are often struggling. That’s why Pennsylvania offers opportunities like tax credit scholarships and charter schools, because not everyone can afford to move next to a school they like.

Tax credit scholarships provide businesses and individuals a tax credit for donations to education scholarship organizations. These organizations provide scholarships to children to attend the school of their choice.

Every year Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs help thousands of parents afford the school that works best for their children. And since the average scholarship is around $2,000, compared to average public school spending of $18,000 per student, the programs are a bargain for the commonwealth.

But there are caps on the tax credit programs, which cause thousands of applications to be denied — around 43,000 per year, according to the most recent numbers. That’s why I’m working with my colleagues in the state House of Representatives to increase these caps and ensure the programs can meet the needs of Pennsylvania’s families.

Pennsylvania’s charter schools offer another vital form of educational choice, but here we face a similar difficulty: Children are often denied access to their preferred school. School districts are the only entities that can approve new local charter schools in Pennsylvania, which is a massive conflict of interest. Can you imagine giving Subway the right to decide if Jersey Mike’s can open a location in your town? School districts frequently deny charter applications, resulting in crowded lotteries that can literally make or break a child’s future.

It’s time for lawmakers to make charter school authorization independent. By removing the conflict of interest that allows school districts to block the competition, we can help new charter schools spring up so more kids can attend the school that fits their needs.

By ensuring kids have access to the educational opportunities they need, we can get them back on track before it’s too late. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to do right by Pennsylvania’s children.

State Rep. Natalie Mihalek, a Republican, represents District 40, which includes parts of Allegheny and Washington counties.

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