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As the nation's fight over reopening schools wages on, West Virginia Legislature advances major school choice bills


State Republicans expanded number of charter schools eligible to be created and passed a bill to create education savings accounts

Scott Heins/Bloomberg via Getty Images

School freedom is advancing in the state of West Virginia this week as major legislation to expand school choice passed through the lower house of the state Legislature.

The Republican-controlled House of Delegates on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill to expand the number of charter schools that could be approved in the state in a three-year period from three to 10. The bill passed 66-32, with all Democratic delegates opposing the legislation. On Thursday, legislation creating education savings accounts was approved by the House of Delegates in a 60-29 vote.

These education savings accounts, known as the "Hope Scholarship," would permit parents to use their tax dollars for education expenses like private school tuition, home tutoring, testing aids, and other permitted education expenses. Republicans approved an amendment to the legislation that would make nearly every school-age child eligible for an education savings account by 2026, opening the program to a maximum 22,000 students at a cost of $101 million.

"We're a diverse state. We have different geographic regions that have different needs," Delegate Joe Ellington, a Republican and the charter school bill's chief sponsor, told the Associated Press. "This just gives opportunity. If people don't want to take advantage of that opportunity, they don't have to. So it's strictly voluntary."

Charter schools were legalized during a special session of the West Virginia Legislature in 2019, after intense statewide protests by teachers unions opposing the bill. This year, however, school choice advanced speedily with the support of Republican supermajorities in the legislature.

Under current law, county school boards may authorize applications to create a charter school. So far there are no charter schools in West Virginia and only one application to create a charter school has been submitted to the school boards in Monongalia and Preston counties. That application was rejected, and there is a lawsuit against the state Department of Education over the decision.

The charter school expansion bill would create the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board to review and authorize charter school applications in addition to the county boards. It would also allow each of Virginia's 55 counties to approve the creation of a fully online virtual charter school, which would be allowed to enroll up to 10% of public school students.

Democrats opposing charter school expansion and the creation of education savings accounts say permitting parents to use their tax dollars to send their kids to private or religious schools will detract from state funding for public schools. They also raised concerns about the cost of the legislation after Republicans expanded the education savings accounts bill.

"The price tag just went right through the roof," Delegate Larry Rowe (D) said of the Hope Scholarship's $101 million price tag. "It is an unbelievable amount of money to be voting here in a simple amendment on the floor for the first time to be completely changing the nature of this program."

Last month West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) signed an executive order to begin reopening public and private schools that had closed down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers unions sued to block schools from reopening, but Kanawha County Circuit Judge Carrie Webster ruled against the unions and refused to block reopening plans from the state board of education.

Under the reopening plan, pre-K, elementary and middle schools will be open for in-person instruction in all West Virginia counties for four or five days per week. Alternatively, school districts can opt for a hybrid reopening plan that permits schools to open at least two days per week until all their teachers are fully vaccinated. High schools may also reopen in all counties except those designated as high risk for COVID-19 spread by the Department of Health and Human Resources County Alert System.

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