CHARLESTON, WV (AP)- The West Virginia House of Delegates advanced a bill Thursday to allow publicly funded savings accounts for students to attend private schools over vehement opposition from Democrats and educators that the move would be costly, unnecessary and discriminatory.
The Republican-led House passed the bill on a 60-39 vote. One member was absent. The bill now goes to the state Senate.
The program, named the Hope Scholarship, would put state money into a special account that parents could then spend on private school tuition, homeschooling and other educational needs. It would allow private and homeschooled students to participate, pushing the cost to the state to more than $100 million annually. The funding would be capped at $4,600 per child.
Democrats dominated the debate on the bill that lasted more than an hour.
Delegates earlier this week defeated amendments proposed by Democrats that would have capped the number of students receiving the vouchers and would have excluded higher-income families from receiving the funding. Most private schools in West Virginia are Christian. Democrat-sought protections in the bill for students against discrimination based on religion and LGBT status were rejected.
Putnam County Republican Joshua Higginbotham said he is proud of his public school background and assured skeptics there are plenty of bills within the House education committee that would try to beef up the public education system.
“But we have to give opportunity for people who can’t afford to attend a private school or to be homeschooled,” Higginbotham said. “That is exactly what this bill does. That’s why it’s the Hope Scholarship.”
Cabell County Democrat Sean Hornbuckle said the bill will use taxpayer funds to support a religion-based education and won’t help rural students who have transportation issues to private schools. He and other Democrats said it won’t do enough to help disabled students.
“As this bill is currently reading, it is the Hoax Scholarship,” Hornbuckle said.
Kanawha County Democrat Larry Rowe said how the program will be paid for remains a mystery because the fiscal aspects were not spelled out.
“We don’t have good financial information with this bill,” Rowe said. “We’re left with pure speculation about the cost of this bill.”
Earlier this week the House passed a bill to increase the number of charter schools allowed in West Virginia every three years from three to 10 and allow for online-only charter schools. Charters schools were allowed under a 2019 bill signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice.
Educators and Democrats argue that the move to install charters and education vouchers was driven by outside interests that will steer money away from public schools.
Kanawha County Democrat Jim Barach said the bill would create “a two-tiered system of education where the have-somes and the have-mores get to go to private schools. And everyone else goes to underfunded public schools. And we’re going to end up with a lot of people ending up on the short end of the stick.”