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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Saturday signed into law the bill that “school choice” advocates say will implement the nation’s broadest non-public school vouchers program.

Programs in other states are limited to low-income or special needs or other subsets of students, or have caps on the number of recipients in general. But West Virginia’s program will be open to all K-12 students, including by eventually offering public money to families who already don’t use the public school system.

Effective beginning in the 2022-23 school year, families who withdraw their children from public schools can receive a currently estimated $4,600 per-student, per-year for private- and home-schooling expenses. Families can also receive the money for newly school-aged children who they never want to enter public schools in the first place.

Republican supermajorities passed this legislation (House Bill 2013) without a single Democratic vote.

Democrats raised concern about its effect on public schools, which have been losing students annually since 2012, dropping from about 282,300 children that year to 261,600 in the fall of 2019 and, after the pandemic hit, 252,400 in the fall of 2020.

State funding for public schools is largely based on enrollment, and children leaving them take that money with them to home- and private-schooling in the form of these vouchers.

The West Virginia Department of Education’s operations officer has said she expects public schools will regardless retain most of their federal funds, plus any local excess levy property tax revenue. Some counties don’t have school excess levies.

Parents could use these vouchers for a nearly unlimited list of educational expenses, including online education programs, tutoring, books and private schooling, whether religious or secular. The vast majority of West Virginia private schools are Christian, but the bill doesn’t prohibit using the money for out-of-state boarding schools or other private, out-of-state education providers.

The legislation (House Bill 2013) has a trigger that will automatically be pulled if participation in the program isn’t above 5% of the statewide public school enrollment within the program’s first two years in effect. If that’s the case, then, starting July 1, 2026, parents of all current non-public school children will be able to get the vouchers.

But whether that is triggered or not, the fact that the program offers the vouchers to parents of rising kindergarteners so they can avoid public schools in the first place means it will eventually be open to all who intended to avoid public schools all along.

Estimates from two separate state agencies projected that — aside from the roughly $22 million-$24 million in annual funding the program will shift from public schools to fund vouchers for students who are anticipated to leave public schools — the program’s biggest financial impact will be about $103 million annually in new state funding that will eventually be required to subsidize those who weren’t going to public schools anyway.

There are an estimated 22,300 private- and home-school students currently in West Virginia.

Comparable private-/home-school voucher programs in other states, dubbed “education savings accounts” (ESAs) despite them generally being funded by the state instead of a family’s own investments, are far more limited than West Virginia’s program.

All five states with active ESA programs restrict eligibility more than West Virginia’s program will, according to Indianapolis-based EdChoice. The group advocates for “school choice” programs like vouchers.

Florida, for example, limits its ESAs to students who have special needs, or are below age 5 and at high-risk of developmental delay.

There are multiple types of voucher-like programs that aren’t ESAs. They include traditional vouchers that only go to private schools and tax-credit funded scholarship programs.

“The West Virginia ESA bill would be the broadest educational choice program in the nation, including ESAs, vouchers and tax-credit scholarships,” said Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice.

“There are a few tax-credit scholarship policies [in Arizona, Georgia and Montana] that make all students eligible, but there is only a limited amount of funding available, so some eligible students might not receive a scholarship,” he said. “The West Virginia ESA not only makes every child switching out of a public school or entering kindergarten eligible, but it also provides funding for each eligible student who applies.”

Patrick Wolf, a University of Arkansas professor who studies private school choice programs, said “arguably, you could say even at launch it’s the most expansive.”

If the trigger making all current non-public school students eligible were pulled, “that would definitely make it the most universal private school choice program in the country,” Wolf said.

That’s if no other state legislature outdoes West Virginia in this realm before that July 1, 2026, full-eligibility date under the trigger.

Wolf said subsidizing current non-public school students is part of his definition of “universal private school choice” because a significant minority of private school students are low-income, but private school enrollment for these kids is unstable due to financial limitations.

Rejected several times were amendments to the legislation proposed by Democrats that would have kept vouchers from wealthier families, and would have added provisions protecting LGBT students, students of different religions, and disabled or special education students from being discriminated against, or outright excluded, by private education providers.

Statements on most of the state’s largest Protestant private school websites describe homosexuality as a sin. Some schools bar gay students.

The House of Delegates passed the bill 57-42 on March 4 — after retracting an earlier vote on it — with several of the chamber’s 77 Republicans joining all 23 Democrats in voting no. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, was among the no votes.

The Senate voted 20-13 to pass the bill on March 17. Sens. Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, joined all 11 Democrats in voting against the bill. Sen. David Stover, R-Wyoming, was absent.

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