The West Virginia House of Delegates has sidelined the state Senate’s vouchers bill (Senate Bill 1040) while pushing an alternative.
A commonality between them: they both would provide money for kids to attend private schools, and they both would allow those schools to discriminate against students for being gay or for their religion, including by excluding those students.
House Bill 168 would provide people and companies tax credits if they donate to nonprofit “scholarship-granting organizations.”
Those organizations, in turn, would have to spend at least 90% of their annual revenue on paying for kids to attend private schools.
Scholarships per child could be up to 80% of the statewide annual average per-pupil expenditure for some students and 90% for others. That equals about $9,140 to $10,280, according to 2015-16 school year data, the latest available on the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics website.
The scholarships can be up to $25,000 for special needs students.
The bill says private schools, in order to qualify to receive scholarship money, must be accredited by the state Board of Education and have “a stated policy against discrimination in admissions on the basis of race, color, national origin or disability.”
Sexual orientation, sex, gender, gender identity and religion are left out.
Billy Wolfe, communications specialist for Fairness West Virginia, an LGBT rights group, said it’s ironic that it’s called the “Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act.”
“Fairness opposes discrimination, and especially when tax credits are used to enable it,” Wolfe said.
Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said he plans to amend in broader anti-discrimination protections.
On Wednesday, the bill will be on second reading on the House floor, meaning delegates will be able to propose amendments to it. Third reading, the time for a final passage vote, may be Thursday.
Rowe said the current language would mean people could “get a tax credit for donating to a scholarship-providing organization that gives money to a school that will not allow Jewish children to attend — or Muslim kids, or non-Christian kids, or any [other] religion they choose.”
Rowe said the bill is a replacement for education savings accounts, the vouchers the Senate bill would’ve created.
“It’s to replace ESAs,” Rowe said, “because ESAs are where the state writes a check to a parent. What’s the difference?”
House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer and lead sponsor of the bill, said the exclusion of anti-discrimination protections for sexuality and religion was “probably an oversight.”
“I don’t think we intentionally — we modeled that after the Oklahoma bill, it certainly wasn’t intended to be that exclusive,” Shott said.
But he didn’t commit to supporting an amendment that would say the bill couldn’t benefit schools that don’t offer those protections.
Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, leads a school, Victory Baptist Academy, that he said doesn’t accept students who aren’t from Christian families. Its handbook says you can be expelled for being gay.
The application to Grace Christian School, in Huntington, requires parents and students to sign something that says “I understand” the following:
“We believe that God intends sexual intimacy to only occur between a man and a woman who are married to each other. God has commanded that no intimate sexual activity be engaged in outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Therefore, any form of sexual immorality, such as adultery, fornication, homosexual conduct, bisexual conduct, any use of pornography, or any attempt to change one’s sex, is against the design of God and is therefore sin.”
West Virginia’s public schools are banned from discriminating against gay students, though they’re currently allowed to deny transgender students the right to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.
On Tuesday, delegates passed HB 168 out of the House Finance Committee on a 12-11 vote. Delegates William Anderson, R-Wood, and Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, voted with the Democrats against the bill.
Speaking to the committee in favor of the bill was Scott Jensen, senior government affairs adviser for the Washington, D.C.-based American Federation for Children. It’s a pro-school-voucher organization that Betsy DeVos was chairwoman of before stepping down to become the U.S. education secretary.
Jensen, who said the bill was modeled after Oklahoman legislation, was House speaker in Wisconsin but can’t run for office any more as part of a plea deal in which two felony charges against him in 2002 were dismissed and a third was reduced to a “forfeiture.”
After the committee, Republicans then successfully held a first reading of the bill on the floor of the full House. That’s the first step to it passing the House.
Rowe made a motion to oppose the first reading. Delegate Tom Fast, R- Fayette, joined all the Democrats in the failed vote against the first reading.