Republican lawmakers revive push for school choice legislation
School choice bills vetoed in 2016 and 2017
Del. A.C. Cordoza, R-Hampton, Republican Lt-Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, and Del. Amanda Batten, R-James City speak during a press conference on school choice legislation on Jan. 5, 2022. (Nathaniel Cline / Virginia Mercury)
Republican lawmakers are reviving school choice legislation as part of what they say is a push to strengthen parental rights and expand educational opportunities.
On Thursday, Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, held a press conference after filing House Bill 1508 to create the Virginia Education Account Program, a proposal that would allow parents to set up a savings account funded with state dollars that could be used to cover educational expenses at private schools in Virginia.
“You can fully fund public education, but also give the right of the parents to decide the educational opportunity for their child and have them use those funds to follow the child,” said Davis.
The legislation could face tough headwinds from Democrats, who control the state Senate, however. The House and Senate caucuses on Thursday released a statement saying one of the party’s priorities during the upcoming session is to fund public schools fully. And Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, said transferring funding away from public schools will only “funnel money to the rich.”
The legislation follows several years of outcry by some Virginia parents over curriculum decisions and school transparency issues. At the same time, state education leaders are facing steep learning losses following the pandemic and widespread teacher shortages.
Republican lawmakers including Dels. Amanda Batten, R-James City, and A.C. Cordoza, R-Hampton, joined Davis along with Republican Lt.-Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears Thursday to express support for the legislation, which they said is intended for families who don’t have a choice about their children’s education.
“What we are saying as parents is, ‘No more.’ We’re not going to do the same things and expect different results,” Earle-Sears said.
“This is not about funding the rich children’s education,” she said. “Rich parents are not waiting on a government program to decide where to send their children to school. They’ve already made that choice. What’s happening now is what about the rest of us who don’t have that choice.”
Batten said every parent learned through the “failed experiment in virtual learning” that each child has unique learning needs.
“I think it opened the eyes of many, many Virginians to realize that the needs of their children were not necessarily being met in their local public school. And yet, based on their income or their zip code, they didn’t have an option to make another choice,” she said.
How the accounts would work
Under the proposed legislation, parents would be able to use the funds in their “Virginia Education Success Account” for specific educational services including tuition, deposits, fees and textbooks at a private elementary or secondary school in Virginia.
Davis’ bill calls for the Virginia Department of the Treasury and a third-party institution contracted by the department to administer the program.
Arizona and Florida are among the states that have similar programs. State deposits into such programs vary but typically are based on the state’s per-pupil amount.
Under the proposed legislation, Virginia’s deposit would be consistent with the amount appropriated to a school division per student. Davis estimated that parents could see an average of $6,303.25 for a student. The program would only apply to students enrolled in public schools. Students would also be required to have attended a public school for at least one semester or to be starting kindergarten or attending first grade for the first time.
Out of state funding appropriated for students, Davis said a third would be directed to the program. School divisions would continue to receive the remaining funds.
School choice gains traction
Supporters of Davis’ proposal packed a room in Richmond’s Pocahontas Building Thursday.
Denisha Allen, the founder of Black Minds Matter, a group that supports school choice in Black communities, said she supports the bill after benefiting from similar legislation herself in Florida. She said such legislation is “monumental” in changing the trajectory of students.
“This legislation and education savings account is quite frankly my favorite when providing options for students, because not only will a parent be able to pay for tuition to possibly go to a private school, but parents could also pay for tutoring and tablets, books, other educational materials that can help further and help them in their academic journey,” Allen said.
Valerie Coley, pastor of Divine Covering Ministries, said the legislation would help Black and brown students, who recorded declines in core subjects such as reading and math during the pandemic.
On Virginia’s Standards of Learning tests in reading, Black students dropped from a passing rate of 65% in 2018-19 to 60% in 2021-22. The scores of Hispanic and disadvantaged students dropped by six percentage points, the most of any groups, during the same time period.
Hispanic and Black students were also among the top four groups with the steepest declines in math passing rates, with scores dropping 21 points each. Economically disadvantaged students and English language learners had drops of 20 and 23 points, respectively.
Craig DiSesa, chair of the Virginia Education Opportunity Alliance, a group founded in November 2021 in response to what it calls “divisive curriculum” and “the deliberate attempt by school boards to separate parents from important decisions concerning their children’s education,” said if the legislation passes, he believes most parents will keep their children in public schools.
“There are really good public schools,” DiSesa said, “but there are so many failing public schools, especially in our inner cities and in our marginalized communities.”
Dems pledge to fully fund public schools
Democrats meanwhile are emphasizing the need to fully fund public schools in their educational platform.
VanValkenburg, a teacher, called public schools “pillars” of economic opportunity, the middle class and economic growth, and said taking money out of public schools, particularly rural schools, “is a recipe for disaster.”
He also said he believes the bill will lead to the growth of virtual education, a mode of learning heavily criticized by Republicans during the pandemic.
“I think it will have a tough path because I don’t think it’s just that the Democrats in the Senate will vote it down, I think there’s going to be a lot of Republicans in the House that are going to think twice about it,” VanValkenburg said.
Previous vetoes cite ‘significant constitutional concerns’
In his veto, McAuliffe said there were “significant constitutional concerns” with the idea, linked to the potential use of public funds for tuition at private sectarian institutions. He also said the legislation would not have significantly lowered operating costs.
“This bill raises constitutional questions, diverts funds from public schools, and creates an unfair system,” McAuliffe wrote. “Our goal is to support and improve public education across the commonwealth for all students, not to codify inequality.”
Davis, however, said he feels confident the legislation he has put forward this year will reach the governor’s desk despite a Democrat-controlled Senate due to the recent spotlight on student learning loss.
“The learning loss is so much greater inside of our minority communities, our historically Black communities,” Davis said. “And the parents are demanding the ability to make sure their children have a good educational experience they can flourish in.”
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