By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail
Gov. Jim Justice has signed the free community college tuition bill. West Virginia students may be able to benefit from it in the upcoming academic year.
Senate Bill 1 will guarantee students free tuition when pursuing certain certificates and associate’s degrees at in-state, public community colleges and those public, primarily four-year colleges that also offer associate’s degrees.
Matt Turner, executive vice chancellor for administration for the state Community and Technical College System, said the CTCS board now needs to implement emergency rules to start the program.
Throughout its path through the Legislature this year, lawmakers kept significant caveats on who could receive the tuition and for what kinds of degrees. There was little effort to remove the caveats.
The new law says the programs students may receive free tuition for will be limited to those that “satisfy a workforce need as determined by the Department of Commerce.”
High school graduates of any age are eligible for the program, but there are numerous criteria they must meet for eligibility. Among them are that students:
- Can’t have already received a college degree;
- Must be a legal U.S. resident and have lived in West Virginia for at least one year immediately preceding the date they apply;
- Pay for and pass drug tests before each semester;
- Stay in West Virginia for at least two years after getting a certification or degree (if they leave before then, they have to repay the grant, unless exempted for something like military service);
- Complete at least eight hours of community service during their whole time of study;
- Take at least six credit hours per semester (generally, that’s two classes);
- Maintain a cumulative grade point average of at least 2.0;
- Complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The Senate passed the bill 33-0, with Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, who earlier voted for the bill, absent. The House of Delegates passed it 85-13.
Justice also has signed these other education bills that were passed during this year’s regular legislative session.
Lawmaker vote tallies below are for the final votes:
Special education cameras
Public school special education classrooms will be required to have video cameras, with the signing of Senate Bill 632.
Parents and guardians of students involved in alleged incidents like bullying, abuse or neglect will be able to view the videos. Incidents are defined as suspicions raised by parents, guardians, teachers or aides.
The Senate approved the bill 30-4, and the House passed it 91-2, with seven delegates absent.
The Department of Education estimated the statewide cost at $7 million, and $3.5 million in possible general revenue surplus money would be provided next fiscal year through the approved budget bill.
Higher education master plan
The statewide master plan for public higher education will be eliminated, generally weakening the higher education oversight agencies’ power to oversee colleges, with the signing of Senate Bill 673.
The Senate, which passed the bill unanimously, refused to agree to the House’s amendment that would have expanded the bill to exempt Fairmont State and Shepherd universities from more state Higher Education Policy Commission oversight than the bill would exempt other four-year public colleges from.
The House backed down from its amendment and passed the bill in an 84-14 final vote. Delegates Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, and Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, were absent.
School bus cameras
All school buses that county boards of education buy, starting July 1, will be required to have forward- and rear-facing cameras, with the signing of Senate Bill 238.
The Department of Education has estimated this will cost the state about $830,000 per year. It estimated the cost to county school boards as zero.
The law also will increase the driver’s license suspension times and the minimum and maximum fines for illegally passing school buses.
The Senate passed the bill unanimously, and the House passed it with only Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, voting no. Nine delegates were absent.
Celebrate Freedom Week
Public and private school students no longer must study America’s founding documents during the week of Sept. 11, with the signing of House Bill 2422.
In 2017, the Legislature passed House Bill 3080, creating “Celebrate Freedom Week” and requiring it to be during that week.
“The purpose of Celebrate Freedom Week is to educate students about the sacrifices made for freedom in the founding of this country and the values on which this country was founded,” read a line that bill added to state law.
This year’s change lets county school boards pick when Celebrate Freedom Week occurs, and it adds the Emancipation Proclamation to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as the specific documents that must be studied that week.
The House passed the bill 98-0, and the Senate passed it 33-0. Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, was absent.
529 plans for private K-12
Taxpayers may invest in Smart529 college savings accounts to pay for tuition at private K-12 schools, including religious ones, with the signing of Senate Bill 670.
The House passed the bill with only Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, voting no. Absent were Delegates Mark Dean, R-Mingo, and Sharon Lewis Malcolm, R-Kanawha.
The Senate passed it unanimously.
State Assistant Treasurer Josh Stowers has said he believes the federal tax overhaul allowed states to add this flexibility but did not mandate them to do so.
529 plans allow people to save money tax deferred, so they don’t have to pay taxes on that money at all, as long as it’s used for qualified expenses. The new law adds tuition for private K-12 schools as a qualifying expense.
Tazuer Smith, deputy treasurer for college savings, has said taxpayers could, for each child, get an up-to-$10,000 annual deduction on their taxable income for state income tax purposes for money spent on private school tuition.
School shooting, safety training
Students and all school employees must annually receive active-shooter training and first-aid training, with the signing of House Bill 2541.
Schools also must have room numbers on exterior walls or windows so police and first responders can identify rooms with exterior walls. And county school systems must provide first responders and local police updated school floor plans by Sept. 1 of each year.
The Senate passed the bill with only Mann absent. The House passed it 97-0, with Delegates Dean, Malcolm and Roy Cooper, R-Summers, absent.
Public middle and high schools that don’t follow state rules for dealing with sports-related concussions will be subject to discipline rules created by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission, with the signing of Senate Bill 605.
The rules must have the state Board of Education’s sign off.
The Senate and House each passed the bill unanimously.
Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, was the bill’s lead sponsor.
She said the SSAC has some disciplinary rules currently, but they “really didn’t have any teeth at all.” But lawmakers didn’t specify in the bill what kind of discipline the SSAC must take against various infractions.
Bernie Dolan, executive director of the SSAC, disagreed that the current rules don’t have teeth. In his four years leading the SSAC, he said, he hasn’t heard of any violations of the concussion protocol and has never had to use the discipline.