Education savings account bill passes W.Va. Senate

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senators passed a standalone bill that would authorize education savings accounts, a concept that was repeatedly voted down in the House of Delegates during the regular session.

The voucher-style program passed the Senate 18-15 with one absence on Monday, roughly the same margin that a broader bill including the provision passed that chamber during the regular legislative session.

Education savings accounts set aside taxpayer dollars for students who are leaving public school for private schooling.

Democrats, who all voted against the bill, asked question after question of Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson.

Bill Ihlenfeld

Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, asked the most questions, mostly about the possible cost of the bill or its consequences.

At one point, Ihlenfeld asked why the bill was considered as standalone legislation, rather than as part of an omnibus education bill that was passed earlier in the day.

Ihlenfeld asked, “Can you tell me why this bill was separated out?”

Rucker responded, “We decided to do it separately due to negative comments we received.”

After the floor session, Ihlenfeld said many of his questions could have been answered already if the education savings account bill had gone through the committee process. In its standalone form, it went straight to the floor.

“That was part of what I wanted to highlight is this was the kind of bill that should have gone through the Education Committee process, should have gone to the Finance Committee. This is potentially a very heavy lift financially for the state, and we should have the opportunity in a committee setting to ask those questions.

“And I wanted to get my questions out today because it appeared to be the only opportunity to do so.”

A report produced after a series of education forums around the state this spring does not recommend education savings accounts at all.

The recommendation: “Do not implement ESAS due to public concerns over fraud, lack of accountability and concentrations of benefits to higher income families.”

The latest version debuting in the Senate does not appear to have a limitation in overall number, total amount spent or a category of student who could qualify, such as special needs.

During questioning on the Senate floor, Rucker said the amount available for each student would be about $3,850 a year.

Rucker, questioned on the floor, said the estimated cost for the first year would be $945,000. The cost was expected to go down in the second year and higher in the third year.

The document she cited, provided by the state Treasurer, did not appear to have been provided to other senators or to the public.

The state Department of Education would make the money available to the state Treasurer, which would operate the program.

If insufficient funding is available, priority would go to students whose applications were submitted first.

The funds may go to a variety of private educational expenses, including tuition, tutoring or educational software.

Parents could apply for an education savings account after July 1, 2020.

The household income of applying families is not to exceed $150,000 a year.

A parental review committee would be established to help the Treasurer oversee the use of the program.

Jason Huffman

Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, which pushes for lower taxes and decreased regulation, praised the bill’s passage in the Senate.

“West Virginia is one step closer to giving every West Virginia student access to an education that will help them succeed in life. The Student Success Act and universal education savings accounts are the bold reforms our state needs to improve education,” stated Jason Huffman, state director of the lobbying organization.

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