Betsy DeVos’s attempt to take CARES act money intended for public schools and direct it to private schools was knocked down by federal courts not once, not twice, but three times, with the third strike being final. But now some Pennsylvania legislators are getting ready to try a similar sleight of hand with $500 million in taxpayer funds.
House Bill 2696, the “Back on Track” bill, proposes to give a $1,000 voucher to parents for every K-12 child. This particular voucher format is the education savings account, a chunk of money set aside by the state that parents can spend on any qualifying education expenses, using an electronic transfer— a sort of educational debit card.
Parents would have to apply for the voucher, and money will be awarded on a first come first served basis. An initial period earmarks the money for families below 185% of the federal poverty level, but after November 16, any family may apply. The family can hold onto that money up until two years after the student has graduated from high school.
The allowable expenses include tuition and fees, textbooks, school uniforms, testing costs, instructional materials, computer hardware or software, counseling services, and “other valid educational expenses.” Providers are not allowed to offer kickbacks to parents.
The problem with this sort of voucher program has always been accountability. In 2018, auditors found that Arizona parents had mis-spent something like $700K in voucher money on beauty supplies, clothing and sporting goods. The Pennsylvania bill allows that the state treasurer “may provide for audits of an account” if the office determines it’s necessary. But we are talking about the possible oversight of a half million accounts, and the bill offers no additional staff or funding to make that oversight possible.
Meanwhile, there is also little accountability