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Justice signs education savings account bill

CHARLESTON — West Virginia is now the seventh state in the nation to offer an education savings account program.

Gov. Jim Justice has signed the Hope Scholarship bill.

The Legislature received a letter Monday from Justice announcing the signing of several bills Saturday, including House Bill 2013, creating the Hope Scholarship program.

With the signing of the Hope Scholarship, West Virginia has among the most expansive education savings account programs in the nation. Six other states offer education savings account programs, with Tennessee’s program on hold and most other programs limited to students with disabilities or part of individualized education programs.

HB 2013 would give parents the option to use a portion of their per-pupil expenditure from the state School Aid Formula for educational expenses, such as private-school tuition, home tutoring, learning aids and other acceptable expenses. At implementation, any student who is enrolled full time in a public school for either the entire previous year or for 45 calendar days is eligible to apply for the scholarship.

The bill caps the Hope Scholarship at $4,600 per student and could cost about $24 million per year when implemented in 2022 if every eligible student applies. The bill also opens up the Hope Scholarship program to eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026, increasing the cost to as much as $102.9 million by fiscal year 2027.

A coalition of Republican lawmakers, conservative public policy groups and advocates for choice in educational options held a virtual press conference in February prior to the start of the legislative session calling for passage of legislation creating the Hope Scholarship. Those groups praised the signing of HB 2013 on Monday.

“As West Virginians, we often long for something about which we can be proud of on a national stage: Mountaineer or Marshall athletics, Chuck Yeager or the New River Gorge. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Hope Scholarship qualifies on that level,” said Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the conservative Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. “Finally, with this program becoming law, West Virginia is a national leader in its approach to K-12 education by placing front-and-center what’s most important: children.”

“We commend in the highest terms the Governor’s support for this transformational policy achievement and call on him to continue to give West Virginia’s students more educational freedom,” said Jason Huffman, state director for the West Virginia chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a free-market advocacy group. “This is a tremendous day for students and families all across the Mountain State. By ensuring that every child in this state has the opportunity to access the education that is right for them, Hope Scholarships will thoughtfully provide the common-sense educational flexibility that our families deserve.”

Other groups supporting the Hope Scholarship included the West Virginia Christian Education Association, the Association of Christian Schools International, Catholic Education Partners, ExcelinEd in Action, EdChoice, and Education Choice West Virginia.

HB 2013 doesn’t have full support, however. State teacher’s unions have been vocal opponents of the Hope Scholarship bill as has the progressive West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy.

“While proponents say that this bill has no true cost to public education since money follows the student, the cost for individual schools and school districts is significant,” wrote WVCBP executive director Kelly Allen on the organization’s blog. ” … The value of the Hope Scholarship falls far short of average private school tuition in West Virginia and many rural counties in West Virginia do not have private schools at all, meaning that most low-income and rural students are left out of the program altogether.”

The Republican majority in the Legislature attempted to pass ESAs in the first version of the education omnibus bill in February 2019, but after disagreements between Republicans in the House of Delegates and state Senate and a second work stoppage by teachers and school service personnel in two years, ESAs were put into a standalone bill that failed in a special session later that year.

HB 2013 is the second major piece of education reform legislation to make it over the finish line of the 2021 session. Justice signed House Bill 2012 on March 11, expanding the state’s charter school pilot program from three schools every three years to 10 schools every three years.

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