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Public education in West Virginia: House of Delegates OKs education savings accounts

Hope Scholarship would give parents the option to use a portion of their per-pupil expenditure from the state School Aid Formula for educational expenses

File Photo by Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, reviews a report at the state Capitol in Charleston.

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia House of Delegates voted Thursday to approve, for a second time, a bill creating an education savings account program after the House Finance Committee fixed issues with the legislation.

House Bill 2013 creating the Hope Scholarship passed 57-42 Thursday after it previously passed 60-39 on Feb. 18. Delegates George Miller, R-Morgan, Jeffrey Pack, R-Raleigh, and Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, voted for the bill on Feb. 18, but against the bill Thursday.

The Hope Scholarship would give parents the option to use a portion of their per-pupil expenditure from the state School Aid Formula for educational expenses, such as private school tuition, home tutoring, learning aids and other acceptable expenses. If passed, West Virginia would become the seventh state with an ESA program.

“There’s more than one way to educate our students,” said House Education Committee Chairman Joe Ellington, R-Mercer. “This is just one small part to take that population of kids out that need a different environment to learn and excel. Isn’t that the goal that we’re trying to achieve?”

Voting against the measure from the Northern Panhandle were delegates Erikka Storch, R-Ohio; Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall; Dave Kelly, R-Tyler; Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock; Phil Diserio, D-Brooke; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall; and Dave Pethtel, D-Wetzel. Only Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, voted in support.

The bill originally was capped at 5,000 students for a potential cost of $23 million per year when implemented. An amendment made to the bill two weeks ago expanded the program to all eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026, raising the cost of the Hope Scholarship program to as much as $101 million by fiscal year 2027.

But a fiscal note, prepared by the West Virginia Legislature’s new Division of Regulatory and Fiscal Affairs found the bill could open eligibility to private and homeschool students earlier than intended. The price tag under the amended bill passed by the House would have increased to as much as $112.3 million per fiscal year if every eligible student participated.

Changes made by the House Finance Committee made it so only state residents, those enrolled during the previous instruction term, or enrolled for 45 days before applying for the Hope Scholarship would be eligible. In the case of students enrolled for only 45 days, the Hope Scholarship Board would individually approve those applicants.

The amount of state funding for the program is not less than 2 percent of the net public school enrollment or the total number of eligible Hope Scholarship applicants received by the State Treasurer’s Office, whichever is greater. An amendment to the House Finance Committee’s floor amendment restored the funding cap from $3,000 to $4,600.

Democratic House members tried in vain to amend the bill again, offering amendments to cap eligibility to just low-income families, provide additional funding to county school systems to make them whole for financial losses for students who leave the public school system, and to include religious and sexual orientation anti-discrimination protections. All the amendments failed.

“We have several small schools in my district. I’m very concerned that this bill, using our public funds and taking them out of our public schools, will result in mass consolidation,” said Del. Cody Thompson, D-Randolph.

“I guess I’m a little bit happy today that we’re not the party of handouts anymore, cause we’re carving out stuff and it’s not even for poor people,” said House Education Committee Minority Chairman Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell. “The people that have the ability to go to these different institutions, we’re going to give them a handout. So if you want to provide handouts, go ahead, vote for the Hoax Scholarship.”

The bill heads to the Senate next.

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