Advocates make attempt at education savings accounts
CHARLESTON — Despite being left on the cutting room floor during efforts two years ago to pass a sweeping education overhaul, some lawmakers and education reform advocates want to take another look at education savings accounts.
A coalition of Republican lawmakers, conservative public policy groups, and advocates for choice in educational options held a virtual press conference Tuesday calling for passage of legislation creating the Hope Scholarship.
“Right now, our activists across the state are working to strongly encourage lawmakers to support the creation of education savings accounts in the state,” said Jason Huffman, the state director for the West Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative grassroots advocacy organization.
The bill would create West Virginia’s first education savings account (ESA) program. An education savings account, a form of voucher, gives parents the option to use their tax dollars for educational expenses, such as private school tuition, home tutoring, learning aids, and other acceptable expenses.
“ESAs will provide students and parents in the Mountain State with the flexibility that they deserve by covering education-related expenses that range from tuition, tutoring, supplemental education materials, online courses and online classes. They could even use ESAs to utilize public school courses and vocational education. But most of all, what they do is they create a funding system built around students rather than a rigid funding system,” Huffman said.
According to EdChoice, a group that specializes in research on school choice initiatives, there are six states with ESA programs: Arizona (2011), Florida (2013), Mississippi (2015), Nevada (2015), Tennessee (2015), and North Carolina (2017). Nevada’s program is currently inactive.
Parents Katie Switzer and Sammie Adkins said that ESAs would help them provide individualized education support to their children. One of Switzer’s three children has a speech disability, and one of Adkins’ children is on the autism spectrum.
“Every family has different needs and even a great public school might not be a good fit,” Switzer said. “An ESA would be a huge game changer for us in terms of being able to not just have flexibility for our whole family, but for our individual children.”
“It seems like all parents, regardless of financial position or circumstances, should be able to choose whatever option fits their child best,” Adkins said. “This is why I’m so supportive of measures that would kind of equalize these privileges and provide every kid in West Virginia the opportunity to thrive in their best educational environment.”
AFP-WV is part of a broad coalition of groups who signed a letter expressing support for ESAs, including the West Virginia Christian Education Association, Association of Christian Schools International, Catholic Education Partners, ExcelinEd in Action, EdChoice, Education Choice West Virginia, and the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.
“This coalition … firmly believes that ESAs offer West Virginia the best opportunity for families to tailor an education that best fits the learning needs and styles of their children,” said Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute. “Empowered with ESAs, thousands of families in West Virginia could — for the first time in West Virginia’s history — have the ability to create an education that will help each child realize his or her potential, regardless of the family’s income or ZIP code.”
The Republican majority in the Legislature attempted to pass ESAs in the first version of the education omnibus bill in February 2019, but after disagreements between Republicans in the House of Delegates and state Senate and a second work stoppage by teachers and school service personnel in two years, Gov. Jim Justice called for a special session to deal specifically with education reform.
The Legislature passed House Bill 206 on June 24, 2019. That bill included provisions to boost funding to county school systems, pay raises for teachers and school service personnel, incentives for college students to pursue teaching careers, a new West Virginia National Guard Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy in southern West Virginia, the ability for counties to develop open enrollment policies, increased funding for wraparound services, and a pilot program for public charter schools.
A standalone bill creating ESAs – Senate Bill 1040 — passed narrowly in a 18-15 vote along party lines but was never taken up in committee on the House side. That bill would have provided parents with an amount equivalent to 90 percent of their prior year’s per pupil expenditure based on the statewide average net state aid allotted to their home county — approximately $3,800 per student.
House Majority Whip Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, expressed their support for the Hope Scholarship bill, which will be introduced during the 2021 legislative session that starts today. Rucker was the lead sponsor of SB 1040 in 2019.
“I really am excited about the Hope Scholarship, which is going to be our legislation this year to provide an opportunity of choice for every family West Virginia that shows that we care about every student,” Rucker said. “It doesn’t matter where they are. It doesn’t matter where they live. It doesn’t matter what their income is. It doesn’t matter what their background is. We want to make certain every child has an opportunity for a good education.”
The Department of Education would have transferred the money to the state Treasurer’s Office to establish the ESA for the student, guided by a Parent Review Committee to review questionable expenses. That program would have cost $7.2 million if 3 percent of students — 2,000 students — applied in the first year. There was no cap on the number of parents who could apply, but the program included a combined household income cap of $150,000.
Newly elected State Treasurer Riley Moore said his office is working with Republican lawmakers in both chambers to help craft the new ESA bill.
“I’m absolutely supportive of ESAs and other options to expand educational choice in West Virginia, especially for those who lack the financial resources to pursue alternatives,” Moore said. “We want to give West Virginians — particularly individuals with special needs or those who have lesser incomes — more choices in how they pursue education and ensure that these options are not cost-prohibitive.”