Journalist’s notebook: new hope? | Journal-news



Last week may have been shorter due to the Independence Day holiday, but there was no shortage of news.

The first big story to break last week was Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit’s shutdown of the Hope Scholarship savings account program on Wednesday.

Calling the Hope Scholarship an education savings account is somewhat unfair. ESAs allow families to use a certain portion of taxpayers’ money to pay for educational services. This ranges from study materials, tutoring, home schooling, private school tuition, and more.

There aren’t many ESA programs nationwide, but those that do exist generally limit who can apply based on income levels or access to educational resources. They are for parents of students who need extra help beyond what the public school system can provide, but who cannot afford these services.

The West Virginia Hope Scholarship is more like a limited voucher program. It is limited to parents of public school students who want to use part of the state’s student aid package that follows their student into the public school system, who can then use that funding for private educational services.

In court, opponents of the Hope Scholarship argued that it used taxpayer money to incentivize families to pull their students out of public schools, depriving those schools of funding and enrollment used to determine future funding. Judge Tabit determined that the program violated the state’s constitutional provision requiring the legislature to provide a “comprehensive and effective system of free schools.”

Proponents of the Hope Scholarship have argued that the program does not violate this constitutional provision and that the legislature can walk and chew gum at the same time by funding public schools and Hope. It also allows the school to retain a portion of the Hope student’s per-student spending, unlike what currently happens when a student leaves the school system and the school loses all access to that money.

School choice has been a buzzword among state lawmakers for the past two years. Our first physical public charter schools and statewide virtual charter schools are opening this school year. More than 3,000 Hope Scholarship applications had been approved before the injunction. The legislature approved a bill earlier this year allowing unlimited micro-schools and learning modules.

Personally, I have never been against the choice of school. I spent all my years of schooling in public school except for my senior year, where I graduated from the Christian school that my church in St. Marys restarted. But it appears that school choice has become more of a priority for some lawmakers and public policy buffs than improving academic outcomes for those who remain in the public school system. I’m not sure the answer to our education problems is simply to encourage people to leave the public school system.

Lawmakers and those who care about the academic success of all our students, in both public and private education.

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That said, lawmakers may want to reconsider amending the state constitution in the near future to clarify that the state Board of Education is not a fourth branch of government. The state board and Department of Education were defendants in the Hope Scholarship lawsuit, but they switched sides and filed briefs in support of the plaintiffs.

The state constitution states that “the general supervision of the free schools in the state shall be vested in the school board of West Virginia.” But it also says the state council “shall perform such functions as may be prescribed by law.” It is the legislature that makes the laws and the executive branch that enforces those laws as we discussed last week.

Members of the State Board of Education are appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate. Both the State Council and the Ministry of Education are executive agencies. The State Superintendent of Schools is the only non-elected member of the Public Works Board.

The board and department have sometimes spoken out critically against bills that the Legislative Assembly has considered. But in this case they are using taxpayers’ money to pay private lawyers to file documents supporting the parents who have sued Hope, which means they are using taxpayers’ money to oppose the powers executive and legislative in the courts.

I would argue that if the Hope is a violation of the state constitution, how is the board and department not violating the constitution by failing to perform the duties mandated to it by statute passed by the legislature and signed by Governor Jim Justice?

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Speaking of Gov. Justice, when he first announced his proposed 10% reduction in personal income tax rates, I knew it sounded familiar. Because it was the exact same plan the House of Delegates passed earlier this year in Bill 4007, introduced by House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley.

HB 4007 passed the House 76-20 along party lines, but the State Senate never took it back. One of the reasons it was never picked up was fear of running up against provisions of the U.S. Federal Bailout Act prohibiting the use of ARPA COVID-19 funds as a means to directly reduce or indirectly taxes. Never mind that the provision has been suspended by two federal courts, so it is unenforceable.

When I asked Dave Hardy, Secretary of Justice and the Department of Revenue, how their plan was different from Householder’s HB 4007, their answers didn’t pass the smell test. I don’t think they expected the question, although they should have. Nobody reports on the budget with the level of detail that I do.

House members I spoke to were happy with Justice’s personal income tax proposal, even though it was a rebranded version of HB 4007. But listening to the Senate Speaker Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, on WV MetroNews Talkline last week sounds like the Senate Republicans are still skeptical.

It’s not that they don’t support personal income tax reduction; they are simply more focused on passing the constitutional amendment in the November ballot that will allow the Legislative Assembly to make changes to certain property taxes. Blair proposed using available tax surpluses and giving residents a discount on their vehicle property taxes as a taste of what might happen if the constitutional amendment passes.

We’ll see what happens when lawmakers meet in special session at the end of the month.


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