The House of Delegates is lined up to pass a bill allowing families to use public money for private education costs.
The “Hope Scholarship” would be established through funds from the state Department of Education to pay for expenses like tuition, tutoring, fees for standardized tests or educational therapies.
As originally conceived, the education savings accounts could be used by students who are transferring out of public schools to attend private schools, religious schools or being homeschooled. Also eligible would be students who are just old enough to enroll. The initial cost was estimated to be a little more than $22 million.
Today, delegates approved an amendment that could significantly broaden those eligible within five years, essentially opening the program to any student in the state.
At the same time, delegates rejected an amendment aimed at preventing the public dollars from being spent on education programs that could discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion or disability.
Delegates will vote on the passage of the bill during Thursday’s session. The Senate would also have to pass it for it to become law.
An amendment approved by delegates today, though, could significantly broaden the number of eligible students by 2026. By then, “every school-aged child would be eligible,” said the amendment’s sponsor, Delegate Adam Burkhammer, R-Lewis.
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder said that could be about 22,000 students. State education officials have said the bill would provide $4,624 per student approved for the program.
So that could amount to $101 million.
Republicans who supported the amendment suggested the amount could be less, depending on demand.
“The uncertainty is, of those 22,000 students, how many would enroll? We just don’t know,” said Householder, R-Berkeley.
But Democrats said the fiscal possibility made their jaws drop.
“The price tag just went right through the roof,” said Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha.
“It is an unbelievable amount of money to be voting here in a simple amendment on the floor for the first time to be completely changing the nature of this program.”
Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, suggested future lawmakers could make adjustments if demand proves to be more than the state can afford.
“The gentleman’s amendment wouldn’t take effect for five years,” Howell said. “So by the 87th Legislature we would see trends in how students are enrolling.” Howell concluded, “We’ll have five years of hard data so if any adjustments need to be made.”
Another amendment would have specified that the money could not be used for educational providers allowing any of several forms of discrimination.
“It’s going to strengthen the bill. It’s going to ensure students can have school choice and are not going to be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity,” said Delegate Cody Thompson, D-Randolph.
“It’s a great way to send a message to the state and to the nation that West Virginia is going to protect all students.”
House Education Chairman Joe Ellington spoke in opposition to the amendment.
“Parents are choosing to send their child to this particular program,” said Ellington, R-Mercer. “Unlike the public school system, it’s not a school that’s being chosen for them. They voluntarily choose to go into the Hope Scholarship program.”
Ellington described other laws, particularly federal laws, meant to prohibit unjust discrimination.
He acknowledged that some of the protections described by the amendment — sexual orientation and gender identification — aren’t specified in the law. But he said a better target of those efforts would be the state human rights law.
Ellington contended, “This would create additional rights for Hope Scholarship recipients that wouldn’t be available to other public or private school students. So the appropriate mechanism would be, in my opinion, to place this type of amendment in the West Virginia Human Rights Act and not in this bill.”
Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, said the bill still needs work. She circled back to Democrats arguments just a day ago that a charter schools bill wouldn’t help all West Virginia children, because some lack access to transportation or to reliable internet. The Republican majority rejected that argument to pass the bill.
In the case of education savings accounts, Zukoff said, will also be West Virginia students unlikely to benefit.
“I would suggest we probably need some work on this bill,” Zukoff said. “We made this choice yesterday on charter schools where it didn’t matter if anybody had the opportunity or not.”