The West Virginia House of Delegates on Thursday passed a nonpublic school vouchers bill that would provide a currently estimated $4,600 per-student per-year to every family for every child they remove from public schools to home- or private-school them.
Several years from now, it also will provide that money to families who already had chosen home-schooling or private-schooling anyway.
The bill now heads to the Senate.
Legislative sessions are ongoing elsewhere, but no other state has such an unrestricted voucher program — one open to every student statewide.
That’s according to the latest information from Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for “school choice” programs such as vouchers.
This type of voucher often is called an education savings account, or ESA. EdChoice said there are only 29,300 students on ESAs nationwide — although if you include non-ESA vouchers and similar programs, the number swells to about 610,000.
Not to be confused with college savings plans, ESAs are K-12 private-school vouchers that go further by also letting parents use the funding to pay for home-schooling expenses, such as online education programs, books and tutors.
In West Virginia’s bill, parents don’t actually invest their own money into an ESA to use later, like a savings account. It’s just money the state provides every year, and parents may spend it using a special debit card or through other means.
The measure (House Bill 2013) would allow parents to build up the money year after year if they don’t use it all, so they could save up a large sum of state money to spend on a nearly unlimited list of educational expenses later on — such as an expensive private school. Parents could choose to use out-of-state education service providers.
EdChoice says just five states have active ESA programs: Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee. They all restrict eligibility more than West Virginia would, according to EdChoice. Florida, a wellspring state for school choice programs, limits its ESAs to students who have special needs or are below age 5 and at high-risk of developmental delay.
“It’s time to bring educational freedom to each and every child in West Virginia to make sure that families have educational options available that meet their child’s unique needs,” Jason Huffman, director of the state arm of Americans for Prosperity, said in a statement.
Because a large part of public school funding is based on enrollment, “school choice” programs such as this one can translate to reduced funding for public schools when students withdraw from them. Population loss and low birth rates already have driven down enrollment.
“You’re going to potentially remove enough funds from a local education agency to seriously cripple their ability to provide a thorough and efficient education, as described by the [state] constitution,” said Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell.
Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, defended the bill.
“If [parents] decide to send their child to a private school, they pay the full array of tuition right now to do that, and they still pay the full array of taxes,” Fast said. “This is not a diversion from public education. It gives education choice to the taxpayers for use of their taxpayer dollars.
“Public funds are taxpayer funds. It is not a subsidy, it creates a choice.”
The vast majority of West Virginia’s private schools are Christian, and students could use the vouchers to attend them. However, the bill contains no anti-discrimination protections beyond one for race, so these schools would be free to not admit and otherwise discriminate against children who don’t match the school’s religion, or who are gay or transgender.
“We’re trying to impose our belief on others by giving this money to religious schools that allow them to then discriminate against children,” said Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall. “That’s not the role of government; we shouldn’t be using public funds for religious education.”
Statements on most of the state’s largest Protestant private school websites describe homosexuality as a sin. Some schools bar gay students.
House Education Committee Vice Chairman Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, explained the bill and fielded Democrats’ questions on the House floor Thursday. Despite voting for the bill, he has said he’s going to be the lead sponsor of the Fairness Act, which would ban LGBT discrimination in housing and public accommodations.
The Fairness Act wouldn’t ban that discrimination at these private schools that would get public money from these vouchers. Higginbotham didn’t return a request for comment Thursday.
Delegate Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, also brought up the possibility of the vouchers going to fund an Islamic private school.
“I, myself, Christian, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, I love it all,” he said. “But that is my right, that is my choice. Now, while I might not agree with it, others feel the way they do. But that is their right. And I would venture to say, that there are some out there that might not be too happy, that we’re funding a Muslim school. I’m just going to say that.”
It’s unclear if there are any Islamic schools in existence in West Virginia.
The bill passed 60-39. All 23 Democrats voted against it, joined by William Anderson, R-Wood; Trenton Barnhart, R-Pleasants; Jason Barrett, R-Berkeley; Josh Booth, R-Wayne; Roy Cooper, R-Summers; Mark Dean, R-Mingo; Dana Ferrell, R-Kanawha; David Kelly, R-Tyler; John Kelly, R-Wood; Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock; Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming; Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall; Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell; Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire; Erikka Storch, R-Ohio; and Christopher Toney, R-Raleigh.
Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, was absent.