FILE - School classroom

(The Center Square) – With some public schools unable to provide in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic, a West Virginia lawmaker plans to introduce legislation that would allow parents to use their public school dollars to fund at-home education services.

Del. Joshua Higginbotham, R-Putnam, seeks to grant flexibility to parents who opt to teach their children from home or must teach their children from home because of state restrictions. Parents would be able to use public money through education savings accounts (ESAs) that normally would go toward public schools. Parents could use the money for educational resources, such as teachers, tutors, textbooks, educational technology services and curriculums.

“Many West Virginia counties are not permitted to begin schooling in-person, which will have terrible negative long-term consequences on student outcomes and the behavioral [and] emotional well-being of children in our state,” Higginbotham said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we have to give families the flexibility to ensure their child has access to the education that’s right for them.”

Although many students will be forced to receive their education online, West Virginia is one of the worst states for access to high speed internet, with about 30 percent of residents not having access to it.

In a phone interview with The Center Square, Higginbotham said the bill would let families spend their money more wisely and more efficiently. He said wealthy families have access to more educational resources, but many poorer and rural families do not have that opportunity. He said these families should have equal opportunity.

The bill would not cost the state any additional money because it would reallocate funds that would have been given to public schools. Higginbotham said he wouldn’t mind the money staying with public schools, but schools are not open and students cannot access the services they used to have.

“I just want the kids to learn,” Higginbotham said. “I don’t care where it is.”

The proposal received support from free-market groups such as the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy and opposition from the West Virginia Public Education Association, which wants the money to stay with the public schools.

“Education savings accounts are one of the most innovative solutions in education policy in quite some time,” Garrett Ballengee, the executive director of the Cardinal Institute, told The Center Square.

“ESAs are exciting, because they allow families to customize a child's learning experience in ways that were not possible prior to their invention,” Ballengee said. “They're also hugely important in providing school choice to families whose income level may not have made it possible to attend alternative learning environments like private or religious schools or move to better school districts where home prices are typically higher. ESAs really go a long way in leveling the playing field when it comes to school choice because it opens alternative options to families with limited economic means.”

Ballengee said the legislation would help close the education gap in a state that has lagged in providing education choice. He said the state passed its first school-choice bill to allow public money to go to charter schools in 2019, far after most states had passed similar legislation. The state still does not allow private school choice, but this bill would allow that.

Kym Randolph, the assistant executive director of the West Virginia Education Association, told The Center Square the organization consistently has opposed this kind of legislation. She said the bill’s language has not been released, but previous versions of the bill took much-needed funding away from public schools.

“Schools are operating in various stages right now,” Randolph said. “Some in person, some being offered virtually and others using a hybrid/remote option. Our state leaders have worked hard in [West Virginia] to get remote and virtual schools up and running throughout the state. All students are receiving instruction, and our educators will do everything possible to make sure everyone is receiving the combination of instruction needed to keep pace.”

State restrictions on schools reopening depend on the number of new daily cases in the school’s county. Counties with lower new cases per day are allowed to reopen schools with some restrictions, but the worst performing counties must provide only remote learning opportunities.

Staff Reporter

Tyler Arnold reports on Virginia and West Virginia for The Center Square. He previously worked for the Cause of Action Institute and has been published in Business Insider, USA TODAY College, National Review Online and the Washington Free Beacon.