The House of Delegates, after a long debate, passed a bill allowing families to use public money for private education costs.
House Bill 2013 passed 60-39, which means a relatively large block of the House’s 77-member Republican majority voted against it. It now goes to the state Senate, where similar measures have received solid support from the Republican majority in recent years.
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.
“This gives opportunities for kids who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford these sort of things to leave the public school system for an education they might think is better for them,” Delegate Joshua Higginbotham, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, said on today’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
.@HigginbothamforWV, Vice-Chair of the House Education Committee, joins @HoppyKercheval to discuss the ESA bill, and how it will affect the school system in https://t.co/rn6maOBVPd. WATCH: https://t.co/yCFQ3nDJuy pic.twitter.com/5Fgw5AWFpq
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) February 18, 2021
Delegates debated the bill for more than an hour today, with Democrats saying it would divert resources from the public school system, not be open to all students in practice and potentially wind up breaking the bank.
Most Republicans said very little. Higginbotham, R-Putnam, answered questions about the bill and expressed support for it.
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, also spoke up in favor, saying it would provide choices for families.
“Parents are taxpayers and currently they pay the full array of taxes. If they decide to send their child to a private school they pay the full array of tuition to do that and they still pay the full array of taxes,” Fast said.
“This is not a diversion from public education. It gives education choice to the taxpayers for their use of taxpayer dollars. Public funds are taxpayer funds.”
Democrats said the bill is ill-advised.
“The effect of the bill will be to siphon money off from public schools, give it to private schools,” said Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson.
Delegate Cody Thompson, a public school teacher, was among those arguing the bill would diminish the resources of public schools.
“I just agree that the public funds should stick with the public schools,” said Thompson, D-Randolph. “I see the needs in the classroom, the supplies we don’t have.”
A day ago, Democrats pushed for 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. The amendment was voted down.
“This will harm public schools. And it also will permit discrimination,” Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Mononagalia, said today.
Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said the way the bill is constructed actually winds up being anti-choice.
“It violates the core fundamental principle of religious freedom. We are going to be paying for religious education with taxpayer funds,” Hornbuckle said.
Some delegates worried about the financial effects of the bill.
On Wednesday, delegates approved an amendment that could significantly broaden those eligible within five years, essentially opening the program to any student in the state.
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, but it’s also not clear how many families would actually choose to use the money.
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, wanted more financial certainty.
“I’ve got trouble with this bill, obviously, and it’s because we don’t have good financial information,” he said. “We need to know what the numbers are. In a floor amendment, we added $77 million to this bill. That’s not fiscally responsible.”
Delegate Pat McGeehan asked whether it’s likely the availability of public dollars would make it more likely that private schools raise their tuition.
“What would you expect to occur if suddenly many students were approved and inject that money into private Catholic schools? What do you think the price of tuition would do? You understand the laws of supply and demand,” said McGeehan, R-Hancock.
“So would you not deem it within the world of possibility that you have parents pulling their students out of the public school system, receiving almost $5,000 and sending them to Catholic school and the tuition at these private schools conforming to what the government is establishing – essentially bidding up the tuition?”
An organization supporting the education savings accounts, Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, issued a statement praising the House passage of the bill.
“Mountaineers overwhelmingly support expanded educational freedom for students and families. This bill recognizes that parents and students deserve educational flexibility,” stated Jason Huffman, the organization’s state director.
“It’s time to bring educational freedom to each and every child in West Virginia to make sure that families have educational options available that meet their child’s unique needs. We thank the House for supporting Education Savings Accounts and urge the Senate to pass this legislation without delay.”
The state Democratic Party issued a statement describing the bill as part of an anti-public education agenda.
“Republicans have proven in the first 9 days of the Legislative Session that their first priority is to defund and dismantle our public education system,” stated Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore.
“Our priority should be uplifting and strengthening our public schools to better all West Virginia students. These bills chip away from our public schools and create a deep discriminatory divide between students. It’s just not right to take taxpayer dollars meant to help all students and give them to other institutions for the select few.”