Leaders of the new Republican supermajority have queued up a “school choice” doubleheader for the very first meeting of the House Education Committee Thursday: charter schools and vouchers.
The charter school bill (House Bill 2012) would allow faster charter school expansion in the state and online-only charter schools, plus form a new board that could authorize a statewide online-only charter school.
The controversial 2019 omnibus education law allowed the state to have charter schools for the first time — but the state Board of Education then passed a policy banning full-time virtual charters.
The voucher bill (House Bill 2013) would give parents public money to send their children to private schools — which, in West Virginia, are overwhelmingly Christian schools — or to homeschool them. The range of education expenses parents could spend the money on would be nearly unlimited.
“A participating school or education service provider is not required to alter its creed, practices, admission policy or curriculum in order to accept eligible [student voucher] recipients whose parents pay tuition or fees from a Hope Scholarship account,” the bill says.
There would be no cap on how many students could receive the vouchers, and nothing excluding wealthy families from getting the vouchers.
The 2019 omnibus law had included vouchers in previous versions, but they were removed before the Republican legislative leadership managed to pass the omnibus.
This year, there are more Republicans in the House of Delegates, where the omnibus had struggled to pass.
The meeting starts 1 p.m. Thursday.
The Senate Education Committee’s first meeting, set for 2 p.m. Friday, is getting off to a similar start.
The only thing on that agenda is a bill that would allow private school students to participate in public school sports and bands.
Last year, the Legislature already passed a law that allowed home-schooled students, but not private schoolers, to participate in the vast majority of public school sports and bands if they take at least one online public school course.
The chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, has already filed an anti-school worker strike bill, though she hasn’t yet put it on the agenda.
The early appearance of these bills on committee agendas comes nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, which likely fed the higher-than-average drop in public school enrollment this school year. Republican Gov. Jim Justice didn’t make Christian schools play by the same rules he forced on public schools as to when they could be open for in-person instruction.
The new charter bill would, among other things, allow for up to 10 charter schools in West Virginia through July 1, 2023 — up from the three currently allowed until then.
Similarly, while the 2019 omnibus allowed three more charter schools for every three-year period after July 1, 2023, the new bill would allow 10 more every three years.
Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly said the 2019 omnibus education law banned full-time online-only charter schools. The law legalized charter schools in general, and it was a state Board of Education policy that banned full-time virtual ones.