CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House Finance Committee approved Friday evening a version of SB 1 – the last-dollar-in or “free community college” bill – slightly altered from what came over from House Education.

Danny Hamrick

The committee’s handling of the bill was delayed by several hours of negotiations and retoolings, but House Education chair Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, and the education staff attorney who worked the bill after it came over from the Senate were on hand to answer questions and witness the vote.

The major Finance change to the bill was to remove private and nonprofit four-year institutions that offer associate degrees from the list of approved institutions that may participate in the program.

The committee was originally set to take up the bill at 3 p.m. That was delayed until about 4 p.m., the delayed again until after the afternoon House session. Then, the start of the 6 p.m. meeting was delayed until about 6:45. After that, consideration proceeded rapidly and it passed about 7:20.

SB 1 has two major parts. The first establishes Advanced Career Education – ACE – programs in which public schools and post-secondary schools form partnerships to set up education paths for students to obtain associate degrees or advanced job certifications.

West Virginia Legislature

Larry Rowe

Students who take approved ACE programs – just out of high school or who need to return to the workforce and lack a degree – will pay no tuition; they are considered students under the state school aid formula, said Sarah Stewart with the Department of Education.

The second part is the last dollar in part. It establishes the WV Invests Grants Program.

Eligible students can apply for grants to supplement their other financial aid to pursue an associate degree or certificate at a community or technical college or a public four-year school that offers appropriate associate degree programs.

The public four-year schools that offer associate degrees are Fairmont State, Glenville, Bluefield, Potomac State, West Liberty and Marshall.

The Department of Commerce will develop a hierarchy of high-demand skilled professions and workforce needs with shortages. Eligible programs are those that offer programs to satisfy those workforce needs. The grant money goes to the school, not to the student.

Eligible applicants must be U.S. citizens or legal residents and have been a West Virginia resident for a year. They must have completed secondary education in a public, private or home school but have no post-secondary degree.

An applicant must be enrolled for at least six credit hours, be drug tested, participate in a community service program, and must remain in the state for two years following obtainment of the degree or certificate. A student who moves away within that window must repay all or part of the grant.A grant may not exceed the average cost of tuition and fees at community and technical colleges: $4,040.

The fiscal note for the bill is about $9.9 million.

Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, offered an amendment to rename WV Invests Grants as the Katherine Johnson Hope Scholarship. He described Johnson’s achievements.

Katherine Coleman Johnson is the West Virginia-born, black physicist who regained notoriety in the movie “Hidden Figures,” about six black women who helped propel NASA’s early space program, including calculating the trajectory for John Glen’s pioneering orbit.

Johnson was also one of three African-American students, and the only female, chosen to desegregate WVU’s graduate school programs in 1939, where she enrolled in graduate math but left before completing the program in order to start a family.

The NASA IV&V facility in Fairmont is named for her.

Rowe said the name would serve as an inspiration for youths who have no hope but cold find some through this program.

Opponents said they appreciated Rowe’s intent and value Johnson’s achievements, but felt that her high level of education made naming this program aimed at middle-skill level workforce training for her was a mismatch.

The amendment failed in a close voice vote.

The bill then passed in another voice vote, this one with only one nay, from Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason. Butler also opposed the bill in education and offered several failed amendments.

He would prefer the program to be needs based, he said in Education and after Finance. He worries that someone from a wealthy family who doesn’t qualify for financial aid could score a free ride through this program, and qualify for the entire $4,040 rather than the projected average of $700.

SB 1 now goes to the full House. If approved there, it will return to the Senate for amendment concurrence.

WV Legislative Photography, Photo by Perry Bennett