(The Center Square) – With Republicans now having a supermajority in both chambers of the West Virginia state legislature, lawmakers are pushing through legislation that would expand the state’s school choice options.
Lawmakers have advanced two bills to expand school choice: House Bill 2012 would expand the number of charter schools and House Bill 2013 would establish a voucher system for private schooling and homeschooling. Both bills are supported by Republican leaders, but opposed by the Democratic minority.
Republicans will have a greater chance of passing these bills now that they hold more than two-thirds of the seats in both chambers and have the governorship.
West Virginia has been slower than most states in adopting school choice. In 2019, the state adopted legislation to establish a charter school system, but restricted it to only three charter school approvals every three years. The current legislation would expand the system to allow 10 approvals every three years.
The state has yet to institute any voucher system for public schools. The bill under consideration would establish the Hope Scholarship Program, which would grant parents discretion on the use of tax money that would normally be used for their children to attend a public school. It would allow them to use this money for private schooling or homeschooling and tutoring expenses. This would include religious and non-religious schools.
Like many states, West Virginia has seen a decline in public school enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic as parents have opted for homeschooling or private options in which students could receive in-person instruction. Under Gov. Jim Justice’s orders, all elementary and middle schools are now required to reopen for in-person classes, but some high schools will be required to provide only online classes if the county’s COVID-19 numbers are at high levels.
Republicans and school-choice groups who support the legislation say it would expand options for parents, increase competition. Democrats and teachers’ unions who oppose the legislation argue it would divert funding away from public schools. Some Democratic lawmakers also object to money sent to religious schools who may refuse admission if a person is not a member of the parish or of a different religion.
"West Virginia lawmakers are trying to expand educational options for all children in the Mountaineer State during a global pandemic that has upended education across the country,” Jen Wagner, the vice president of communications for EdChoice, told The Center Square.
“If successful, this would be the first school choice program in the state,” Wagner said. “Now, more than ever, parents need options. The Hope Scholarship Program would empower families to customize their education and provide students the opportunity to learn in the environment that works best [for] them."
Lawmakers are also considering legislation that would allow public school teachers who strike to be fired.