Accountability Budget Cuts Funding Vouchers West Virginia

West Virginia: House Delays Voucher Bill When It Sees the Cost

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The West Virginia legislature is rushing–like other red states–to pass voucher legislation. They know that very few students will apply for vouchers but that the cost will be enormous. West Virginia Republicans want to have the most expansive voucher bill in the nation (they are competing with New Hampshire and Arizona to supply everyone with the chance to use public money to attend a private or religious school).

However, the House Republicans decided to slow down when they saw how much their proposal would cost. And, they also noted that students can get a voucher not to “escape failing public schools,” but to pay for the religious school they already attend. In other words, the “voucher program” would be simply a subsidy to the 25,000 students already in private/religious schools and in home school. And it would cost $112 million a year to subsidize students whose parents are currently paying for them. And this money would be diverted from the state’s public schools, which enroll the vast majority of students.

Ryan Quinn of the Charleston Gazette-Mail writes:

After passing what could be the nation’s least-restrictive nonpublic school vouchers bill Thursday — one that would give every family in West Virginia money to private- and home-school their children if they want to remove them from public schools — the West Virginia House of Delegates recalled the bill.

On Friday, in a voice vote with no dissent heard, the Republican-controlled House recanted its passage vote of the day before. Delegates then sent the legislation (House Bill 2013) back to the House Finance Committee.

The West Virginia Senate had yet to pass the bill. House leadership indicated that it plans to fix issues with the bill and pass it again.

House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said the reason for the move was a fiscal note he saw Thursday night.

“That’s why I decided to let people know what I discovered, what I read,” he said. “And now we’ve also asked [the Department of] Education to prepare a fiscal note, too. So, just trying to do the right thing, cover our bases, make sure everything is right.”

However, the state Division of Regulatory and Fiscal Affairs said the note was posted on the Legislature’s website on or before 11 a.m. Wednesday — so lawmakers could have seen it before voting Thursday.

Fiscal notes estimate how much bills will cost, but Republicans had rushed this bill to passage by just the end of the second week of this year’s legislative session.

The problem Householder cited is connected to the fact that the bill doesn’t specify how long parents must have their students enrolled in public schools to be eligible to receive the estimated $4,600 per-student, per-year to withdraw them and start private- or home-schooling.

“Based on our interpretation of the eligibility criteria, a parent of a student currently in private- or home-schooling could enroll their child in a summer public school program, making them eligible to apply for the Hope Scholarship Program,” the fiscal note said, referring to another name for the bill. “Alternatively, they could enroll their child in the public school system to become eligible. As this would introduce new students into the eligible population, it has the potential to substantially increase costs.”

The voucher for that amount is required to go to educational expenses, although that term is very broad in the bill.

Lawmakers had allowed for this cost increase by making the bill ultimately pay the $4,600 per-student, per-year for families who were currently home-schooling or private-schooling anyway. But they had added a provision saying those payments wouldn’t happen until fiscal year 2026-27 — the fiscal note said such costs could arrive much earlier.

“Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, there have been an average of 14,285 private-school students in West Virginia from 2003 to 2017, with no clear increase or decrease over time,” the fiscal note says. “For home-schooled students, we estimate approximately 10,000.

“Assuming current private- and home-school enrollment is similar, and assuming all of these students use one of these methods for becoming eligible for the Hope Scholarship, this could increase the cost of the program to the state by $112,300,882.65 per fiscal year, again assuming no increase in statewide average net state aid allotted per pupil.”

The note points out another potential problem with the likely unprecedented scope of the voucher program. Householder didn’t mention this issue, which is more fundamental to the bill.

The note said its participation estimates of 1% to 3% of current public school students that it used for calculating costs, even if the other problem were fixed, are based on the five states that have this kind of voucher program.

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