On Feb. 19, public schools across West Virginia were empty.
Classrooms were silent and students were home. Teachers, bus drivers and others were protesting at the state Capitol.
But not far off Interstate 64 near Beaver and Beckley, past a lot full of mobile homes and another of storage pods and a mile from its namesake church, Victory Baptist Academy was open.
About 140 students total attend in prekindergarten through 12th grade at the school, a collection of gray brick and block buildings under red metal roofs.
High schoolers diagrammed sentences on the whiteboard of Debbie Roberts’ classroom. She had her students identify whether example sentences needed commas, and they competed over who could spot a redundant word fastest.
Roberts said she’s taught at Victory Baptist since 1993, after teaching at another Christian school. She’s also director of the school play and a pastor’s wife.
But her husband isn’t just any pastor.
In last year’s elections, Victory Baptist Pastor Rollan Roberts earned a new title: state senator.
One of his first acts in the West Virginia Legislature this year was to co-sponsor a bill that would funnel public money to private schools — like the religious school he leads.
The education omnibus bill that included that program, alongside many other provisions, failed during the regular legislative session.
But top GOP leaders are planning to revive ESA vouchers during a special legislative session that may begin this month. House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, has also said he’s exploring an alternative that could provide private school scholarships through other means.
Roberts said he makes $75,000 annually for his work with both the church and school, while his wife made $17,000 last year, an amount limited to preserve her social security. He said this is their only income, aside from his annual legislative salary, legislative mileage reimbursements and per-regular-session-day pay, which has totaled about $26,000 so far.
Roberts’ sponsoring and voting for the voucher program provides an example of the weaknesses in West Virginia’s legislative ethics rules, which allow lawmakers to vote on matters that would benefit themselves, their businesses or their clients.
A House rule requires lawmakers to vote in these situations, so long as they are members of a “class” of people affected financially. The rule defines a class as “five or more similarly situated persons or businesses.”
The relevant Senate rule doesn’t define class. But it allows, more broadly, for the Senate to excuse a member from voting even if they’re not part of a class.
Conflicts of interest aren’t the only issue.
Religious schools could, while receiving public money through the voucher program, exclude LGBT students or students of different religions. Public schools are barred from doing this.
Victory Baptist excludes homosexual students, according to its handbook, though Roberts and Sam Childers, the school’s principal, suggest it’s more lenient than that source states.
Roberts doesn’t deny that his school is only for students from Christian families, though Childers suggested this wasn’t the case.
The law Roberts repeatedly backed would have covered most of his school’s tuition.
He said the school costs about $4,300 per year, per child — though, unlike for public schools, parents must provide transportation and food.
Tuition is only $3,900 for the children of Victory Baptist church members and full-time missionaries. Roberts also said costs decrease for each additional child a family enrolls, to eventually become minimal.
West Virginia’s voucher program would have provided parents $3,200 per year for every child they pull out of full-time public schooling.
Childers, who runs day-to-day operations, said tuition pays for about 80 percent of daily costs.
He said Victory Baptist Church supplements “almost all the rest,” and two other Baptist churches chip in a bit.
Because Victory Baptist is a church and the school is a ministry of that church, they aren’t required to file Form 990s. Those forms are public documents that show financial details.
Roberts said his pay isn’t based on how many students attend the school.
“Probably,” he said, “if it were not for the school, I would be making more money as a pastor.”
Roberts said the “whole ESA concept was introduced and everything before I even got into the Legislature.”
He said he doesn’t know whether he’ll involve himself in shaping any ESA voucher program that may reemerge in the special session. But he said he hasn’t, and won’t, make decisions based on how it may benefit his own school.
“This is not about us and our school, that’s not what this is about,” Roberts said. “This is what will help families and students in West Virginia. It’s the bigger picture, not whether or not it will help us. That’s not why I’m where I am.”
West Virginia’s first statewide public school workers strike was last year.
Many school workers interviewed said they walked out to stop the continuing cuts to their state health insurance coverage, though strikers also called on the Legislature to raise salaries and to stop trying to pass certain bills, like one that would legalize charter schools.
A week into that strike, Sen. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, broke with Republicans several times in trying to pass a 5 percent school worker pay raise before Senate leadership had agreed to it.
“My daughter is a teacher,” Arvon said then. “I have two brothers-in-law that are superintendents, I have bus drivers, teachers aides, principals. Ninety percent of my family is in education. So that’s it right there. It boils down to family.”
The nine-school-day strike ended March 6, 2018, when Senate leadership agreed to the 5 percent school worker raise, alongside raises for other state employees.
Two months later, Roberts defeated Arvon in the GOP primary.
While school employees were back working, they had called upon their fellow strikers to “Remember in November” — the general election.
A month before that general election, Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Senate Republicans promised another 5 percent pay raise.
Roberts and other Republicans won in November, keeping both houses of the Legislature in GOP hands.
Then, on Jan. 24, Senate Republicans revealed a twist: the omnibus education bill.
They shoved the new pay raise into one bill, alongside the voucher program and provisions that would legalize charter schools that could operate outside of the control of any elected Board of Education and outside of the laws and policies current public schools must follow.
The bill had many other provisions, including tens of millions of dollars more for public education. It also would’ve weakened school unions, including through provisions that specifically would make it harder to strike.
On Jan. 25, the day after the roughly 140-page bill’s reveal, Roberts and other Republican Senate Education Committee members advanced it out of the committee.
Public school teachers and Democrats criticized the rush.
In a Jan. 28 Senate floor speech, Roberts denounced the state’s public education system.
“I’ve spent my entire, whole adult life as a pastor, playing referee between people and God and people and people,” Roberts said. “Now, as a senator, I find it necessary to become a referee in another venue.”
The pastor held up a yellow soccer penalty card to give to both political parties and “third-party special interests.”
“The whole state has been thrown into an uproar because past Legislatures seemingly could not navigate us to a calmer and better place in educational excellence,” Roberts said. “Everyone that says they’re for the children. But I think the children have been shortchanged for a very long time, by selfishness and power-hungry tactics of those in charge of the educational process.”
He said, “Chaos and confusion along with shouting and screaming are no way to solve problems. That kind of behavior cheapens the teaching profession.”
Roberts compared the public education system to the Charleston Town Center mall, saying, “If the state education were a business, it would have been also placed in receivership and put up for auction.”
The bill Roberts pushed could have made the state’s education system more like a business — private schools are often businesses, and charter schools can be run by businesses.
The state’s public schools, like Charleston’s mall, are increasingly empty, and school systems are consolidating them. Vouchers and charter schools could empty them more.
“I campaigned and won decisively with a platform that included educational reform,” Roberts said in that Senate speech. “In the midst of all of the mess that happened last year, 16,000 people voted and said, ‘I want something different. I don’t want the same old thing going on.’ ”
Roberts later said he didn’t campaign at all on vouchers, and he had no clue about the omnibus bill until it was presented.
He said he had a banner he took everywhere on the campaign trail, and it had “education reform” as one of the bullet points. The banner didn’t explain what reform he wanted.
A week after Roberts’ floor speech, the Senate passed the overhaul bill to the House.
Up until that vote, Roberts hadn’t asked whether he could be excused from voting on the bill under the Senate’s conflict-of-interest rules.
He had already voted three times to advance the whole bill and another three times to reject three amendments that would have removed or restricted the voucher program.
When the vote to finally pass the bill out of the Senate came up, Roberts did ask to be excused. He publicly noted he’s the administrator of Victory Baptist Academy. Another Republican and a Democratic senator asked to be excused because they’re married to public school employees.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson and the most powerful supporter of the bill, responded that Roberts was a “member of a class and will be required to vote.” So were the other senators, Carmichael said.
Roberts said, “Every other time [Carmichael] did it with everyone else throughout the whole session it was the same response, and I was told that’s the same thing that happens every year and it’s an extremely rare occasion that the Senate president has told someone that they should not vote.”
After Carmichael’s order to vote, Roberts again voted yes.
He said he wasn’t initially aware of being able to request a conflict of interest exemption. He said he didn’t recall when he did become aware.
As the bill was moving, someone sent him an email or Facebook message, he said.
“It was a critical email and said, ‘I hope you’re going to recuse yourself from voting because you could benefit from this,’ and then that got me thinking,” Roberts said.
Two days after the Senate passed the bill, the House Education Committee took up a proposed amended version.
It would’ve limited vouchers to special education students only. Roberts said that, at his school, “normally we don’t enroll special education children at all.”
“They’re saying, ‘Well, let’s do it for special needs kids,’ ” Roberts said the day the House version was revealed. “I think that’s fabulous. At least, let’s just get it started, let’s help the people that are most at risk and have the greatest needs, I’m fine with that.”
Roberts still said he’d like to open up the vouchers beyond special education students, but said, “I’m not opposed a bit, and if they took it all out, I’m not opposed to it.”
When the bill reached the floor of the full House, delegates did completely remove the voucher program and sent that version back to the Senate.
The Senate then proposed amending a scaled-down version of the program back in, among other things.
Roberts again asked to be excused from voting. Carmichael again told him he must.
Roberts then voted to put the program back in and send the amended bill back to the House.
The House killed the bill Feb. 19. That was the first day of this year’s strike, which was launched to oppose the Senate version.
The strike ended Feb. 20, when workers were more sure the bill was really dead.
Roberts had 19 students in his ninth- and 10th-grade health class on May 3.
He started class with a prayer and having students read from the biblical book of Psalms. He then spoke to students about that morning’s topic: stress.
“All of you have different stresses, you have different home situations, you have different family situations,” Roberts said.
He mentioned the drug crisis, something public educators commonly say affects their students and families.
He then brought up something that doesn’t affect students who attend free, public schools.
“Probably, some of you, there might be some questions as to whether or not the finances will be there for you to be able to come here again next year, and those things put stress on you,” Roberts said.
Victory Baptist’s religious teachings are inseparable from its academics.
Its set of science textbooks, according to the school website, “presents the universe as the direct creation of God and refutes the man-made idea of evolution.”
Public school science standards include teaching evolution and other well-established scientific theories, rather than creationism and other teachings based more in faith than science.
Victory Baptist provided its scores on the Iowa Assessments it uses. For the last three years, seniors scored highly compared to the national average on that test that was established in 2011.
Stephen Dunbar, a professor of educational measurement at the University of Iowa and one of the test’s authors, said new national averages were established in 2015 and 2017, but they’re not much different from 2011.
On Feb. 19, the morning this year’s strike began, the Victory Baptist second graders recited the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag, which was held in front of the class by the “flag leader” student. They then answered questions about the flag’s parts, colors and symbolism.
Then, another flag leader student brought up a Christian flag that was mostly white, with a red cross on a blue field in the corner.
The students recited a modified version of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, with more religion than “one nation, under God.”
“One savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty to all who believe,” the Christian flag pledge ended.
They then sang a hymn about the importance of praying often and gave a third pledge: this time, to the Bible itself. A little girl, standing before the class, held the hefty book aloft in her small hand just like our national symbol.
“I will honor its words in my heart, that I might not sin against God,” the students said during this last pledge.
Roberts said, “Our basic premise would be that everything, every subject, English and math and history and science, social studies and social sciences, all of these things come from God, as creator. So, it is a biblical philosophy, so we can’t separate from that and we don’t want — would not want — any outside government entity dictating curriculum or that sort of thing.”
Is a program that provides public money to religious schools legal?
Courts have not found that simply using public money to pay for tuition at a religious school is illegal under the U.S. Constitution. But state constitutional provisions can come into play, and scholars say that such a program could become illegal if it fostered discrimination.
Several education law professors said a 2002 ruling effectively settled that private-school vouchers don’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause.
“We have never found a program of true private choice to offend the Establishment Clause,” the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in a 5-4 ruling on the case, Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. The ruling upheld a voucher program in Cleveland.
“No reasonable observer,” justices wrote, “would think a neutral program of private choice, where state aid reaches religious schools solely as a result of the numerous independent decisions of private individuals, carries with it the imprimatur of government endorsement.”
“We have no federal decision, post-Zelman, on voucher or voucher-like programs,” University of Wisconsin education law professor Julie Mead said, other than a case the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed.
Mead, who focuses on disability law and legal issues associated with publicly funded school choice, said legal issues remain unsettled in states. She said there have only been two major cases specifically regarding ESA vouchers.
ESAs differ from pure private-school voucher programs in that parents can use the public money provided by ESAs for public education alternatives that don’t just include private schooling. A parent could use ESA money to homeschool their child, for example.
In one of the ESA cases, the Arizona Supreme Court upheld that state’s program. In the other, the Nevada Supreme Court partially upheld that state’s program but found the way it was funded violated the Nevada Constitution.
The Nevada program is dormant because Nevada lawmakers haven’t created a new funding mechanism. Only five states had operating ESA programs as of earlier this year.
Mead, alongside Indiana University’s Suzanne Eckes and Jessica Ulm, did write in a 2016 paper that the Zelman decision, the pivotal federal case, may ban private schools participating in voucher programs from discriminating against students based on religion.
Cleveland’s program did say participating private schools, even religious ones, couldn’t discriminate on that basis.
Roberts said Victory Baptist won’t participate in the program if there’s a religious nondiscrimination requirement. He noted his school’s students must attend a Christian church weekly.
“The idea is that we have families from a similar direction and viewpoint in life, so then we don’t have to deal — because we don’t have the time or the ability to deal — with all of the different everything going on,” he said.
“If they attach a government string to it, I will have nothing to do with it,” he said, whether it’s religious anti-discrimination, or requiring the teaching of evolution.
Victory Baptist’s website says acceptance of students is based on several things.
One is sexual orientation.
Childers, who’s been principal for three years, and David Robinson, the preceding principal for over a decade, both said they’ve never asked a prospective student about their sexual orientation. Childers said he wasn’t aware that was on the website.
Victory Baptist’s school handbook also says students can be kicked out if they’re gay.
“Any student who commits fornication, is convicted of a crime, or is involved in homosexuality while enrolled at VBA will not be able to continue as a student at VBA,” the handbook states.
In public schools, on the other hand, state policy is not only to allow gay students, but to protect them from being bullied because of their sexual orientation.
Despite the statements in his school’s handbook and website, Roberts said he couldn’t give a clear answer on how the school would deal with a gay student or applicant.
“I can’t give you a definitive answer how any given situation — how we would deal with the issue,” Roberts said.
At Victory Baptist, the handbook says, “The only organizations, functions, activities, music or doctrinal positions that may be promoted or endorsed among the student body will be those initiated by the administration of Victory Baptist Church.”
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she doesn’t want to ban private schools that accept voucher students from discriminating against LGBT students.
“I don’t want to be dictating to them what their policies are,” she said. “And of course if there is that situation where there’s an LGBT student, I’m assuming they’re not going to want to go to a school that’s going to discriminate against them.”
She said, “Those are the parents’ own tax dollars that is flowing through … The point of whatever we do is to get that child the education they need.”
Carmichael, the Senate president, said he didn’t realize there was no anti-discrimination clause protecting LGBT students in the bill he had pushed.
“There will be, you know, every effort to make sure that it’s completely open and accessible to everyone,” he said.
But Carmichael then said he didn’t want an LGBT anti-discrimination clause.
“This is, um, if a student or a parent utilizes education savings accounts, they take those dollars,” Carmichael said. “Then, it’s up to them on how those resources are allocated by virtue of what qualifies — I mean these rules have to be developed — but what qualifies as a valid educational expenditure.”
He said, “I don’t think we can tell a private school how to conduct their business.” He then said he’ll have to think it through.
In 2011, when the state Board of Education was considering adding bullying protections specifically for LGBT students in public schools, Roberts wrote to the state school board in opposition.
“Bullying should be prohibited for any reason,” Roberts wrote, but added, “Bullying should be defined by a person’s actions, not the status of his or her victim.”
“Proposed Policy 4373 opens the door to groups like the Gay and Lesbian Student Educational Network [GLSEN] to introduce materials to our school children that contradict the moral instruction taught in most West Virginia homes,” Roberts wrote. “The ... proposal harms religious liberty by chilling a student’s right to pray with his fellow student who is struggling with unwanted feelings of same-sex attraction. Under 4373, such a prayer could be [an] unconstitutional violation of a student’s right to the free exercise of his or her religion.”
The board added the protections anyway.
Roberts at first said he didn’t recall writing these comments to the board.
“I would not have had any involvement in commenting in anything with public education until last year, that I know of, at all,” he said. “I’ve felt I would always be pretty much crossed off because of having a private school.”
When sent his comments by email, however, he said he did remember making them.