Gov. Jim Justice said he’s “leaning towards” signing into law what would likely become the nation’s broadest non-public school vouchers program.
The Hope Scholarship program (House Bill 2013) would provide an estimated $4,600 per-student, per-year for alternative education expenses. This would go to every family who removes children from public schools.
The bill is also set up to eventually subsidize people who never had their children in public schools, for an estimated increase of $103 million to annual state spending.
At least as far back as 2019, Justice opposed voucher programs. And the versions of the idea proposed that year were more circumscribed than the legislation lawmakers have sent him this year.
These types of vouchers, which fund both private- and home-schooling expenses, are often dubbed “education savings accounts” — despite them being funded by the state instead of a family’s own investments.
“All I’m going to say is, surely, to the Lord above, we’re not going to lay on my desk the education savings accounts,” Justice said in 2019, ahead of that year’s special legislative session focusing on education.
“Why in the world would we need to go sandpaper a lion’s ass?” he said.
But asked during Friday’s regular news conference about the vouchers bill the state Legislature passed this week, Justice seemed to have lost his fear of lions.
“I’m awaiting that and I know that it is coming to me, and as soon as it comes to me I’ll look and I’ll surely think really hard about exactly what I’m gonna do,” he said. “You know, I’m leaning towards signing it and — but at the same time, I will — I will give it some really, really strong consideration, you know, both ways. That’s what I always do.”
Gubernatorial staff review bills that the Legislature passes before they reach the governor.
“I will be fair-minded and I will absolutely, absolutely do the very best that I can possibly do for the people of West Virginia,” he said.
The governor didn’t explain his newfound openness to vouchers. His tri-weekly, online-only news conferences don’t generally allow reporters to ask follow-up questions to press him to explain his reasoning.
“I’m not sure what has changed,” said Fred Albert, president of the state’s arm of the American Federation of Teachers union.
Justice had, by the 2019 special legislative session, seen two statewide public school workers strikes in as many years, and the second of those strikes was against a version of the omnibus education bill that included those vouchers.
During the 2019 special session, senators separated their proposed voucher program from the omnibus bill. The full Legislature never passed the vouchers bill, but it did pass the pared-down omnibus bill, and Justice signed it.
Also, 2019 came before Republicans won supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature in the November 2020 election.
That diluted opposition to vouchers, including in the House of Delegates, which never passed a vouchers bill in 2019. This year, that chamber was the first to pass the vouchers bill, sending it to the welcoming Senate.
West Virginia’s constitution says that only a simple majority of lawmakers are needed to vote to override gubernatorial vetoes.
“Even if he vetoed it, I think the supermajority has the power to override his veto,” Albert said. “So it’s pretty much a done deal as far as the legislative body is concerned. But I’m not sure why he would want to sign it when he was opposed to them.”
Justice could allow the bill to become law without his signature, something that automatically happens if he doesn’t act for long enough.
Albert said “with this pandemic and the challenges we’ve had this past year, we feel like now, more than ever, our public schools need to be totally supported — and we feel like ESAs are one measure of weakening the funding.”
Because state public school funding in West Virginia is largely based on enrollment, public schools lose money when students leave.
The West Virginia Department of Education’s operations officer has said she expects public schools will retain most of their federal funds, plus any local excess levy property tax revenue, despite students leaving to use vouchers. Some counties don’t have school excess levies.
Albert also noted the Legislature is now advancing a tax write-off for private- and home-schooling, atop the vouchers.