Education has been a top issue for lawmakers in this year’s West Virginia legislative session as learning was upended significantly amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Among those priority bills in the 60-day session included measures advancing school choice in K-12 education and establishing the West Virginia Jumpstart Savings Program in higher education.
One-third of K-12 students in West Virginia failed at least one core subject in fall 2020, according to the West Virginia Department of Education. The WVDE attributes this dip in learning to children being jostled back-and-forth from in-person, remote, virtual and hybrid schooling.
Connectivity was also a major issue for all counties in the state, and while education officials launched Kids Connect to create more than 1,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, strewn throughout all 55 counties for K-12 and higher education, the governor and education officials repeatedly said it was only a Band-Aid for a much larger problem that needs fixed.
State lawmakers introduced more than 200 education-related bills this year, but as with all years, only a handful of bills actually make it to the governor’s desk for a signature.
So, what got through and what didn’t? Here are just a few of the education bills that have garnered attention this year:
Charter School Expansion — SIGNED
HB 2012 was signed by Gov. Jim Justice on March 11 and will go into effect on June 1.
The bill expands on West Virginia’s current public charter school law passed two years ago. It allows for up to 10 physical public charter schools to be established in the state by 2023. The bill also allows for the creation of two, statewide virtual public charter schools, as well as one local virtual charter per county.
The measure also establishes the West Virginia Professional Charter School Board, which may act as an authorizer, meaning an entity that has the authority to approve or disapprove a proposed charter school.
West Virginia has not yet approved any charter schools.
Education Savings Accounts — SIGNED
HB 2013 would launch the Hope Scholarship Program. The bill was signed into law by the governor on March 27 and will go into effect on June 15.
The program creates education vouchers for public school students who are interested in changing to home or private school. A student could receive about a $4,600 voucher per year based on the current state School Aid Formula.
These vouchers would be used for things like tuition at a private school, tutoring or an after-school program.
Also, under the bill, if less than 5 percent of students take part in the program in its first year, in 2026, the program would open to all current West Virginia private and homeschool students, regardless of whether that student ever attended public school.
If all private and homeschooled students took part statewide, the program is estimated to cost about $100 million a year, according to the West Virginia Department of Education.
The Student Rescue Act — DEAD
HB 3217 would have created the Student Rescue Act. The bill had bipartisan support but ultimately, it did not make it to the governor’s desk.
The measure would have helped K-12 students catch up on schoolwork following the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have provided students with concentrated summer courses to make up for instruction time, class credits and grade-level-specific skills lost due to the pandemic. The law would also have applied to any future pandemic or natural disaster that lasts longer than 21 days.
The bill’s lead sponsor was House Education Minority Chair Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, who said in committee that not all counties are planning to offer summer remediation efforts. He said this bill would have ensured the option would be made available in all 55 counties.
The bill did not make it out of its originating chamber before Crossover Day.
West Virginia Jumpstart Savings Program — SIGNED
HB 2001 was signed by the governor on March 19 and will go into effect on June 9.
The measure creates a tax-free savings plan for state residents who have completed school in a particular trade or vocation, like welding, plumbing, car maintenance or electrical work.
The program will allow individuals who have gone to a trade or vocational school to save for tools and equipment upon graduation.
The program is similar to the state’s SMART529 savings program used to save for college.
Making Work Stoppage By Public Employees Illegal — LAW W/O SIGNATURE
SB 11 became law without the governor’s signature on March 11 following its approval by the House and Senate. It will go into effect on June 2.
The measure codifies a 1990 decision by the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals that declared strikes and work stoppages by public employees illegal. The legislation also follows teachers and service personnel walking off the job in 2018 and 2019.
The bill would make going on strike a cause for termination, but this decision would ultimately be made by county administrators. Pay for days missed due to a strike could also be withheld, although that pay could be reinstated when days are made up.
Restrictions on Transgender Student-Athletes — HEADS TO GOVERNOR
Following consideration in the Senate on April 8, the House of Delegates voted 80-20 to concur with the Senate’s version of HB 3293 just one day later. The bill now heads to the governor for consideration.
The bill has seen drastic changes since it left its originating chamber. As amended by the Senate, the measure would restrict transgender students’ access to women’s sports in middle, high school and college.
Under the bill, student-athletes who are cisgender, meaning someone whose gender is exclusively the one they were assigned at birth, can go to their county boards of education, or their state higher education institution, and file a lawsuit against transgender competitors if they feel “aggrieved” or “harmed” by a violation of this bill.
West Virginia is one of more than two dozen states that have pushed similar legislation this year.
The Open and Equal Opportunities in Student Activities Act — DEAD
SB 28, would have allowed private and homeschool students to participate in extracurricular activities like sports and band at public schools. However, the measure was referred to the Senate Committee on Rules while on second reading and never made it out of the chamber before Crossover Day.
The bill would have created the Open and Equal Opportunities in Student Activities Act, formerly called the Tim Tebow Act — so named for the former professional American athlete Tim Tebow, a Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida, who was homeschooled.
Similar legislation has been considered by the West Virginia Legislature in previous years but has never made it to the governor for a signature.
Making FAFSA a Requirement of High School Graduation — DEAD
HB 2702 was the first piece of legislation in the 2021 session to be rejected on the floor of a full chamber. It was rejected by the House of Delegates on March 25.
The measure would have made filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, a requirement to graduate high school in West Virginia. The goal of the bill was to ensure all high school students filled out the application so they might learn how much aid they may receive when considering college.
Higher education officials reported prior to the start of the legislative session that FAFSA applications in the state were down by 25 percent.
Officials said this was largely due to students being out of schools because of the coronavirus pandemic.
In-Field Master’s Degrees — LIKELY DEAD
SB 15 passed out of the Senate back in February and was sent to the House Education Committee on Feb. 19, but it was never put on the committee’s agenda.
The measure would have prohibited teachers from receiving a pay increase for any education level above a bachelor’s degree unless they have received a master’s degree that directly connects to the areas in which they teach. By doing this, that teacher would then be eligible to receive a bump in pay.
Supporters of the legislation said it would help keep qualified teachers in the classroom, while those in opposition said it would make getting a step increase in pay more restrictive.
Related to West Virginia County School Boards — LIKELY DEAD
SB 588 made it out of the Senate on March 29 and was sent to the House Education Committee a day later, but it was never put on the committee’s agenda.
The measure would have required county school boards and county superintendents to comply with instructions given by the West Virginia Board of Education.
The ability for the state BOE to take control of a county school district is already in state law, but advocates of the bill said the legislation would have created steps for the districts to follow to avoid a full takeover.
The bill came after tensions rose between the state BOE and a handful of county school boards that opted to keep students in remote learning models out of concerns over the coronavirus pandemic.