Kids of many voucher backers in WV Senate don't attend public schools

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By Jake Zuckerman, Charleston Gazette-Mail

The administrator of a private religious school sponsored a bill that will let students use public dollars to pay to attend private religious schools.

The Senate Education Committee chairwoman, who has home-schooled her five children, sponsored the bill as well, which critics say will taper funds away from cash-strapped public schools.

At least seven of the 18 Republicans who voted to send a comprehensive education overhaul to the Senate floor didn’t send some of their children through the public education system in West Virginia or other states.


Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, has served as the administrator for Victory Baptist Academy, in Beaver, for 31 years now, where his children attended.

The bill, set for a vote on Monday, would allow students who opt out of public school to receive about $3,200 of public money per year to attend non-public schools, including religious ones like VBA.

Students whose household income, including of themselves and their parents, is over $150,000 annually couldn’t receive these “education savings account” funds.

When Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, appointed Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, he touted both her decision to home-school her children as well as her experience as a public school teacher in Maryland. Her campaign website says she taught social studies.

However, according to Gboyinde Onijala, a spokeswoman for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, Rucker only served as a part-time substitute teacher from 1993 to 2002. William Reinhard, a Maryland Department of Education spokesman, said Rucker worked before the department maintained records electronically, but staff found no records pertaining to her certification, though the paper records are “admittedly less complete.”

“I was not a certified teacher. They accepted me without the certification, and I taught in classes, but no, I didn’t have a class I was assigned to,” Rucker said Friday.

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, another sponsor on the bill, sends his children to a Christian school. Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, also sends his children to a Christian school.

Children of Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, have gone through public schooling, private schooling, and home-schooling, depending on the child and grade level. Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, has had some of his children go through public school and some through a private religious school.

Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, has three children in private school.

Maynard, Azinger and Roberts all sit on the Senate Education Committee, for which Rucker serves as chairwoman.

According to research from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, five states have active education savings account programs (public dollars for nonpublic schooling). However, 15 states have voucher programs, which are similar except they provide families with tuition certificates, not cash.

In interviews, Republican senators emphasized they are just trying to increase options for parents given poor student performance in public schools in West Virginia. Senate Republicans voted down an amendment Friday forwarded by Democrats to remove the education savings account provision of the bill. They argued the provision is a means to ensure private schools can be attended by students from non-wealthy families.

According to state data, about 21,000 students enrolled in private schools or were home-schooled in the 2015-2016 school year. About 277,000 students were enrolled in public schools that school year.

Other provisions in the bill include: a pay raise for teachers and school service personnel; allowing county boards to raise regular levy property tax rates, although an amendment adopted Friday requires them to submit the question to voters; allowing for differential pay for teachers by subject and geography; and others.

Senate Democrats and union leaders have criticized Senate Republicans for not including public educators or the state board of education in crafting such a sweeping bill.

Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, a former president of the Logan County Board of Education, noted the missing link between some of the bill’s supporters and public education. In a floor speech Tuesday, he said he looked up the biographies of Senate Republicans and found most of them had not engaged much with public education.

“A very small percentage of you all sitting in the majority ... have had little to no direct engagement in public education in the past five years,” he said. “Whether you choose to school your children at home, in private — and that’s your business, your right, God bless you for it, that’s fine — how much interaction have you actually had directly with K-12 public education?”

The bill is scheduled for an up-or-down vote Monday.