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West Virginia Choice Bill Scuttled After Teachers Strike

May 2, 2019

Public school students have few choices.

West Virginia lawmakers withdrew a bill aimed at improving educational opportunities for the Mountain State’s government-school students after two days of a strike called by teachers’ unions to protest the bill.

The two-day strike forced schools in 54 of West Virginia’s 55 counties to close on February 20 and 21.

The omnibus legislation would have created education savings accounts (ESAs) for some students, established a nonrefundable tax credit parents’ and teachers’ could use for children’s educational expenses, and authorized the state’s first charter schools. It also included a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, on top of a 5 percent raise they received after a strike in 2018.

The bill passed the state Senate, but died in the House of Representatives after a contentious debate and the teachers’ strike.

No Choice

The proposed ESAs would have allowed parents of children with special needs a chance to customize their child’s education. Up to 1,000 students could have had state money deposited in accounts that could be used for private school tuition, online learning, special education services and therapies, and textbooks. Parents could have rolled over unused ESA funds from year to year.

ESAs would give students with special needs or disabilities increased educational opportunities, says Tim Benson, a policy analyst with The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News.

“ESAs ... offer families improved access to high-quality schools that meet their children’s unique needs and circumstances,” said Benson.

“Moreover, these programs improve access to schools that deliver quality education inexpensively.”

ESAs are currently available in five states, according to the reform organization EdChoice.

The bill would also have authorized seven charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed. Forty-three states have enacted charter school laws.

‘Defeat for the Children’

The West Virginia House of Delegates did not take up the state Senate’s omnibus bill in the wake of the teachers’ strike. That was a defeat for students in the state, says Jeanne Allen, founder and chief of the Center for Education Reform.

“Teachers’ unions would like to paint this as a victory for teachers, but it’s really another defeat for the children of West Virginia,” said Allen.

“Year after year, politicians kill hope for charter schools in the Mountain State,” Allen said.

‘Falsehoods and Misinformation Abounded’

Opposition to the bill was driven by a political agenda, says Lennie Jarratt, project manager of the Center for Transforming Education at The Heartland Institute, which publishes Budget & Tax News, after witnessing the legislative argument.

“During the debate on the House floor, it was obvious this was about political ideologies, and not what was best for the children of West Virginia,” Jarratt said.

“Falsehoods and misinformation abounded throughout the ten-hour debate, pushing students to the back of the agenda bus,” said Jarratt.

Status Quo, ‘Powerful Allies’

Although millions of children attend charter schools or participate in other choice programs across the nation, children in West Virginia don’t have that choice, says Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute in Charleston.

“Sadly, West Virginia’s children will have to wait another year, at least, before they have the same access to educational opportunities that millions of children across the United States have had for years,” Ballengee said.

“The status quo and its powerful allies have prevailed once again,” Ballengee said.

Back of the Pack

West Virginia ranks 46th out of the 50 states in the National Assessment of Educational Progress measurement of eighth grade mathematics. In reading levels for eighth graders, the state’s students rank 45th nationwide. The poor performance of the state’s government schools is unacceptable, says Allen.

“Year after year, the state’s schools rank as some of the worst in the nation,” said Allen.

“While unions and legislators are content with the status quo, parents and students should not settle for an education system that deprives them of real opportunity,” Allen said.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. (bcohen@nationalcenter.org) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.

Author
Bonner R. Cohen is a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a position he has held since 2002.
bcohen@nationalcenter.org