Education, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

Senate passes House Hope Scholarship ESA bill, sends it to the governor

MORGANTOWN – The Hope Scholarship education savings account bill is on its way to the governor after Senate passage on Wednesday.

The vote was about as expected, 20-13, with two Republicans siding with the minority.

The Hope Scholarship program is a state-funded education savings account (ESA). It will begin as a way to allow public school students to transfer to a private school or be homeschooled. The estimated initial enrollment is 5,118. The estimated per-pupil scholarship of $4,600 (a flexible figure based on average state aid per pupil) could be used for a variety of specified educational expenses.

Beginning in 2026, all students in private and home schools would be eligible for the scholarship if total program participation is less than 5% of statewide student enrollment based on 2023-2024 numbers. That expands the total estimated enrollment to 27,368 students, according to a Department of Education fiscal note.

The initial cost could reach $23.7 million and grow to $126.6 million under the 2026 expansion.

On the opposing side, Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, said at least one private school in the state restricts student admission based on sexual orientation. “This bill would allow public dollars to support a private institution that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, over education. I can’t imagine anyone, at least in the 21st Century, that would support such a system or such a consequence.”

It’s not the right way to welcome new people to the state, he said.

Noting the possible high costs, Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, criticized what he termed the bill’s financial recklessness. While this years gubernatorial budget projections don’t offer the usual six-year outlook, previous outlooks project deficits in the next few fiscal years, he said.

“We can’t be lulled into believing that the financial picture in the state of West Virginia is better than it really is.” They need to take a measured approach to and ESA program. “ If we’re going to go down this path we should be careful.”

And Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, said other states’ ESA programs target specific students with academic or financial challenges. “This particular bill is not a targeted bill, it’s wide open.”

On the positive side, Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, said she’s a teacher and mother of three. She was uncertain about her vote until she recalled one of her elementary school students who was dyslexic. He struggled in class until they figured out his challenge.

The county school system’s special education services did not cover dyslexia, she said, so she had to figure out how to best teach him on her own. She doesn’t know what became of him after he moved on.

Despite pressure from various groups to vote no, she said, she decide to support it. “This bill could make a difference in the lives of others like him.”

She doesn’t believe it will cause financial harm, she said. The are five other active state ESAs and while Florida’s program has almost 12,000 student, three other ESAs each have from 137 to 502 enrolled. “This is not a bill that is going to destroy or defund public education. … What’s right is making sure that all of our students in West Virginia have a good, quality education that’s good for them.”

Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, reminded his colleagues that he is a pastor and certified teacher and was involved in private Christian education for 45 years. “House Bill 2013 attempts to give real hope to struggling children and hurting families,” he said. It will help kids slipping through the cracks of the public education system.

Each student will have an ESA account to receive the funds, and that money will go from the student to the qualified education service provider engaged to provide the services. He wouldn’t agree to the contention that the funds are public because of what he described. And the counties get to keep the federal and local money for students no longer in their system.

He agreed that not every private school can offer the full array of services or accessibility public schools are required to offer, but they’re private schools and parents can choose them or not. The ESA program offers access to other service providers, too.

The current public school system, he said, is a top-heavy administrative hierarchy. “Central offices live in denial of needs for reforms and often victimize the employees and families they serve,” he said.

Many of the kids the bill would serve are from low-income or special needs or minority populations who need an alternative method of education. The bill is imperfect but it will be tweaked in future sessions.

Education chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said, “This is a program that is funding kids,” not the service providers or private schools. And it shouldn’t be targeted as Baldwin suggested; it is admittedly the most broad-based ESA in the country.

“This isn’t about a certain category. These are our kids,” she said. “With this legislation we embrace diversity and we fulfill our promise to give every child in West Virginia access to the education that fits them best.”

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