Liz McCormick Published

In First Week, Legislature Considers Bills Related To Charter Schools, Education Savings Accounts And More

House Education Chair Del. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, and Vice Chair Del. Joshua Higginbotham (left), R-Putnam, lead the House Education Committee on Feb. 11, 2021. The committee meets in the House chamber due to coronavirus safety measures.

Members of the West Virginia Legislature kicked off the first week of the 2021 session introducing a flurry of education bills — 83 total.

As of Saturday, 64 bills have been introduced dedicated to K-12 education, 16 bills related to higher education, and three bills aimed at education generally.

W.Va. Jumpstart Savings Program

The Jumpstart Savings Program, HB 2001, is an initiative coined by newly elected West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore. This program was one of his top three campaign promises. The bill, whose lead sponsor is House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, would create a tax-free savings plan for individuals working in trades such as welding or electrical work. Investments in these savings accounts could be used to pay for tools, equipment, certifications, apprenticeships, expenses or supplies needed for a trade or occupation, or to open an approved business.

“We would be the first state in the country,” Moore told the House Education Committee last week. “We feel very strongly that this would be a real model, in terms of how state government could help incentivize labor and small business growth, and really the working individuals of not only our state, but our country. So, it’s actually a really exciting opportunity.”

West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore answers questions pertaining to the West Virginia Jumpstart Saving Program during a meeting of the House Education Committee on Feb. 11, 2021.

Perry Bennett
WV Legislative Photography
West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore answers questions pertaining to the West Virginia Jumpstart Saving Program during a meeting of the House Education Committee on Feb. 11, 2021.

Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, minority chair of House Education, offered an amendment that was approved by the committee. The amendment lowers the initial deposit requirement to start a Jumpstart account from $50 to $25.

“I just want to make sure that we’re affording more people the opportunity to start something like this — saving and investing,” Hornbuckle said. “They are hard principles to come by, especially for some of our population. A lot of it is actually just habit-building, so I don’t want to block anyone out. And I think that by lowering it to $25 from $50, it would encourage more people to get started.”

Hornbuckle also offered an amendment to expand the savings account to aid in transportation and childcare needs, but this amendment failed.

Minority Chair of House Education Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, asks questions during a House Education Committee meeting on Feb. 11, 2021.

Perry Bennett
WV Legislative Photography
Minority Chair of House Education Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, asks questions during a House Education Committee meeting on Feb. 11, 2021.

The bill passed unanimously out of committee and was reported to the full House. It could be up for a vote by the full chamber as early as Tuesday.

Charter School Expansion

Another bill passed by the same committee was HB 2012, which expands on the current public charter school law in West Virginia.

The expansion would allow for up to 10 charters to be established in the state over a three-year period, and it would permit the state to also establish virtual charter schools. It would also approve the creation of a dispute option for charters. If an authorizer (which in West Virginia means a county school board) finds that a charter school is not living up to its contract, it wouldn’t be shut down immediately but given time to address those issues. If concerns continued after a five-year period, the county board could opt not to renew the school’s charter contract.

The bill also creates some checks and balances. An audit must be performed by the legislative auditor on the Public Charter School Program two years after the first public charter school is established. Those findings must then be reported to the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, or LOCEA, which is a bi-partisan joint committee made up of House and Senate members. Additionally, the state school board must report on the status of the state’s public charter schools to LOCEA by Nov. 1, 2022 and every three years after that.

Virtual public charter schools would be held to the same requirements, but the governing body of the virtual charter must undergo at least one training per year “related to appropriate oversight of the virtual public charter school,” according to the bill. Families would not be eligible for the virtual charter school option, however, if they cannot afford internet or adequate devices.

In committee, there was some back-and-forth between three Democratic lawmakers and the committee’s counsel, but no amendments were adopted, nor was there any discussion on the bill itself.

Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell, a retired science teacher, voiced concerns about ensuring charter schools would be held accountable and have oversight.

“I just want to make sure that we are monitoring, you know, progress,” Evans said. “If a local school system is failing, the state board steps in and does some adjustments, and if things continue to be bad, that they’re going to take that system over.”

The subject of public charter schools in West Virginia has long been debated at the statehouse. Teacher unions do not like the idea of public charter schools, because they are concerned charters will take funding away from traditional public schools. They argue that more funding and aid should be dedicated to and focused on traditional public schools to help them improve and grow.

Supporters of charters, however, argue that the traditional public model has failed West Virginia, and parents want more options for their children.

Last fall, there was an attempt to establish what would have been West Virginia’s first public charter school that would have served both Monongalia and Preston counties. The attempt failed, however, after both county school boards rejected the application.

HB 2012 will be on the amendment stage in the House of Delegates on Monday and could be passed out of the chamber as early as Tuesday this week.

Encouraging Teachers To Get Master’s Degrees

The third education bill that was considered in committee last week and is already on the floor in its respective chamber is SB 15, which relates to in-field master’s degrees.

The bill will be on first reading Monday in the Senate.

The bill prohibits teachers from receiving a pay increase “for any education level above A.B. plus 15” unless they have received a master’s degree that directly connects to their field. This would not affect teachers who are currently teaching and have already received a master’s degree, regardless of field.

The intent is to encourage teachers to pursue master’s degrees in the subjects they teach to help strengthen their effectiveness — and receive a salary boost for doing so.

Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, who is a school teacher, spoke in support of the bill.

“This seems to me as an incentive to keep quality teachers teaching in the classroom,” Grady said. “Because a lot of times what [teachers] do is they’ll get their administrative degree, and then they’ll move into administration to get that step increase … [but] they get the step increase based on getting a master’s or further certification in a field that makes them be a more effective teacher. I think it’s a good incentive.”

Amy Grady - Feb 13 2021 - Senate Education.jpg

Will Price
WV Legislative Photography
Sen. Amy Grady, R-Mason, asks questions during a Senate Education Committee meeting on Feb. 13, 2021. Grady is a school teacher whose seat in the Senate was formerly held by Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

SB 13 passed without amendment or opposing votes and will be on first reading in the Senate chamber on Monday.

Hope Scholarship Program

HB 2013 would create the Hope Scholarship Program, which allows for the establishment of education savings accounts, or ESAs. It passed out of the House Education Committee last week and then out of the House Finance Committee on Saturday.

The issue of education savings accounts has been a source of contention in recent years in West Virginia.

The Hope Scholarship Program would allow eligible families to have access to public dollars to help support them in school. The education savings accounts could be used by students attending private schools, private religious schools or being homeschooled.

The money could be used in multiple ways: as tuition and fees at a participating school; for tutoring services; to pay for nationally standardized assessments; to pay for Advanced Placement examinations or any examinations related to college or university admission; for alternative education programs; and for fees for after-school or summer education programs and more.

Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, expressed concern in committee and voted to reject the bill.

“I think it lacks accountability in terms of how this public money is going to be spent,” Doyle said. “I know that a significant attempt has been made in writing to be able to come up with that accountability, but I don’t think we’ve got there … I think it doesn’t take into account sufficiently for low-income people or for rural people. And I think it discriminates geographically, among other ways, because almost all the private schools in the state are only in a few counties, and I think the provisions regarding discrimination are just way too loose.”

But Jefferson County Republican Wayne Clark spoke in favor of the bill, saying it would help students succeed.

“This is not a private school bill, this is homeschool,” Clark said. “This is additional tutoring services for kids who may be dysfunctional. I think this is a great thing for the state of West Virginia. It gives every kid in the state an option, whether it’s from homeschool, whether it’s private school, whether it’s virtual school — it gives every kid in the state of West Virginia an option to better their education.”

The bill is expected to be on first reading sometime this week.