West Virginia lawmakers heard Monday about possible legislation that would benefit families of homeschool and private school students, including “Education Savings Accounts” that could give families public money to pay tuition to private schools, including religious schools, and other education costs.
The discussion at Monday’s Joint Standing Committee on Education meeting — which also featured more talk about a possible “Tim Tebow” bill that could allow homeschool and more private school students to participate in public school sports and other activities — occurred as West Virginia public school systems face enrollment declines, funding drops and school consolidations.
Last school year, West Virginia had 11,080 homeschool students and 10,405 private school pupils, according to the state Department of Education. The public school enrollment, at 277,137, was about 13 times the combined private and homeschool total.
This year’s public school enrollment is 273,170, a drop of nearly 4,000 students from last school year. The department doesn’t yet have private and homeschool enrollment numbers for this school year.
Public school enrollment dropped nearly 2,760 students from the 2014-15 school year to last school year. At the time, that was the biggest one-year decrease in about 15 years — although the establishment of the state’s free public school pre-kindergarten program since 2002-03 might limit direct comparability over that time.
House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said he invited the pro-Educational Savings Account speakers from the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy; the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based group that describes itself as “a national leader for constitutionally limited government” and has anti-tax activist Grover Norquist on its Board of Directors; and EdChoice, an Indiana-based group advocating for “school choice” policies.
In January, the Cardinal Institute and another group released the “Wild and Wasteful West Virginia” report that targeted West Virginia Public Broadcasting, West Liberty University athletics, Glenville and Bluefield state colleges and called for eliminating state grants for fairs and festivals and most state funding for the arts and state museums. The Cardinal Institute now has an Education Savings Account report.
Espinosa and Senate Education Chairman Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, have both in the past pushed charter schools, another “school choice” initiative that West Virginia doesn’t have.
The Legislature did pass a law (HB 4175) last session that significantly reduced rules for West Virginia home-schooled students, as well as for parents who want to home-school their children.
Among other things, the bill nixed requirements for annual assessment reporting for home-schooled students, allowed parents to administer their kids’ tests if the parents’ chosen test vendors allow it, lowered the threshold that home-schoolers must pass on tests to achieve “acceptable progress” and required that county school superintendents show probable cause before seeking court orders to deny home-schooling for kids.
Espinosa said Monday he doesn’t know whether he’ll actually push Education Savings Account, “Tim Tebow” or charter school bills in the upcoming session in January. He said it was too early to name any bill he wants to focus on, saying he needs to speak with the many new members of the Legislature about what their priorities are.
He noted that last session, the House and Senate passed resolutions to study Education Savings Accounts.
“I think the more input that parents have and students have into choosing educational options that best fit their needs, the better,” Espinosa said.
Presenters at Monday’s meeting of the Joint Standing Committee, which includes members of the House and Senate education committees, argued the Education Savings Accounts would likely have a limited impact on public school system enrollment, following what they said was the trend in other states.
Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, argued the Education Savings Account program helped an Arizona family get the proper education for a child with a speech problem and on the autism spectrum. He said Arizona’s participating families essentially get a debit card for the expenses and have to fill out expense reports.
Brittany Corona, EdChoice’s director of state policy, argued parental choice programs help both the students involved and those in public schools.
Martin F. Lueken, EdChoice’s director of fiscal policy and analysis, handed out a report he prepared arguing that a certain setup of Education Savings Accounts, one similar to Nevada’s version, could save West Virginia $40.9 million next school year. The report said this setup would put into each participating student’s account “90 percent of the state’s share of the Total Basic Program Allowance per pupil” under the state school aid funding formula, and those students would be banned from simultaneously enrolling in a public school.
Lueken said the 90 percent amount would be $3,605. Corona said families could use the money in their accounts to pay education-related costs for their kids, including private school tuition and pay for tutors.
It could also fund education materials for homeschool students and could be saved up for college costs.
But Lueken said his savings figures didn’t take into account the possible cost of all or part of the West Virginia students already in private school or homeschool — nearly 21,500 last school year — trying to get Education Savings Accounts.
Currently, these students’ families pay taxes and the state doesn’t have to fund their educations in return, meaning the state currently saves money due to those students’ nonparticipation in public schools, even if that nonparticipation may cause issues for county public school systems. Public school systems generally have their state school funding automatically cut for each student lost, and not all costs — including costs to maintain increasingly empty school buildings and buses — can easily be cut in response.
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