By Ryan Quinn, Charleston Gazette-Mail
The state Senate’s education overhaul bill would create something called education savings accounts, which only operate in five other states.
Here’s how the legislation (SB 451) would design West Virginia’s program:
The state would give parents about $3,200 annually to educate each participating child through various means aside from a full-time public education. Those include religious and secular private schooling, online education and tutoring.
The bill says companies, schools, groups or people who provide such education “shall be given maximum freedom to provide for the educational needs of ESA students without governmental control.”
The legislation would require public school systems to provide these entities, should a parent choose to receive services from them, “a complete copy of the student’s school records.”
ESA students would be banned from being full-time public schoolers, but it doesn’t bar a part-time public school student from taking part. Some homeschoolers take public school classes part time.
The ESAs mostly focus on elementary and secondary students, but part of the bill says a student’s ESA shall remain active until they graduate with a bachelor’s degree or turn 24, whichever comes first. However, the bill also says the treasurer’s office must stop putting money into the account when the student graduates high school.
The treasurer’s office, or a company it contracts with, would be required to administer the program. Part of the bill requires the office to pay a company to help.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House of Delegates Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, suggested before the legislative session began that they favored only allowing special education students to use ESAs.
But the bill would only ban students who are full-time public schoolers, over 24 or didn’t attend a public school in the prior school year. This seems to ban current home- and private-school parents from getting state funding to do something they were doing anyway.
There couldn’t be more than 2,500 ESAs at any one time. That’s about 1 percent of current public school enrollment. The bill doesn’t specify what would happen if there were more applicants than spots.
The bill lists what ESA dollars could be spent on. The qualifying services and items are broad, and the list ends in the phrase “or any other educational expense approved by the treasurer.”
Listed as qualifying ESA expenses are: private school tuition, “fee-for-service” school transportation, tutoring, textbooks, curriculum, vocational education, “nonpublic online learning programs,” “educational software and applications,” “technological devices that are primarily used to help meet an ESA student’s educational needs,” uniforms, standardized tests, Advanced Placement exams, college entrance exams, exam preparation, physical therapy, speech therapy and other therapies.
The ESA could also pay for services “contracted for, and provided by, a public district, charter, or magnet school,” including extracurricular activities.
The $3,200 annual amount for each ESA, according to the state Department of Education, represents 75 percent of West Virginia’s average state school aid formula per-pupil funding that would’ve otherwise gone to a county public school system.
The $11,700 per-pupil spending figure the education department more often cites includes $4,000 in state school aid plus other sources, including federal grants and money that goes into paying down past unfunded teacher pension debt.
The bill says the treasurer “may accept gifts and grants from any source to cover administrative costs, to inform the public about the ESA Program, or to fund additional ESAs.”
The legislation includes several efforts to shield the state and counties from liability, including a line saying that no liability arises for the treasurer, state or county school systems “based on the award or use of an ESA awarded pursuant to this article.”
At one point, it says in legal challenges “the state bears the burden of establishing that the challenged action, rule, or requirement is necessary and does not impose any undue burden on education service providers.”