Monday, February 23, 2015

Voucher Bill Moves Forward, Charter School Constitutional Amendment Defeated In Senate, But Stll Much Alive In House

This morning, Delegate Dave LaRock’s HB2238, a voucher bill exploiting special needs children to open the door to the future use of public school funds for pay for home-school expenses and private school tuitions, reported from the Senate Finance Committee on a voice vote.  Senator Emmett Hanger was successful in placing a reenactment clause on the bill, requiring that it pass again next session before it becomes law.  Please click on the bill number and read the summary of the bill in the second Fiscal Impact Statement.

VEA offered the following statement on the bill:
VEA urges your opposition to House Bill 2238.  This bill creates a new government entitlement at a time when the Commonwealth is unable to properly fund existing core services.  For example, when inflation is considered, funding for our public schools is 16 percent below 2009 levels.

The new entitlement involves siphoning off funds now received by public schools to create Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts that can be used to pay for education-related expenses.

Although this bill has been amended to include only students having a disability, from what we have seen in the states of Arizona and Florida, the ultimate aim of advocates of Parental Choice Education Savings Accounts will be to broaden eligibility.  Indeed, HB2238 was amended to broaden the definition of disability.  In Arizona, one year after implementation, the scope was expanded to include students in low-performing schools, students with parents on active military duty, and students adopted or pending adoption from the state foster care system.

Beyond the fact that there is legal doubt as to whether the public school division can be relieved from the responsibility of implementing an Individualized Education Program (IEP), it is important to note that private schools are not bound by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or by the terms of a child’s IEP.  They are not compelled to avail the child of the least restrictive environment.  Further, this bill requires no review of student progress, as is required by IDEA, and there are no due-process provisions for parents if progress is not being made, as is required by IDEA.  The Florida plan requires an annual review of student performance with termination provisions if progress is not being achieved.  There are no such provisions in this bill.  IDEA has provisions for impartial due process if discipline is not being administered in an appropriate manner – this bill contains no such provisions.  This should give pause to any of you who recently voted in favor of great regulation of seclusion and restraint in our public schools and to those cognizant of the Constitutional provisions requiring an “educational program of high quality.”

What if the parent and student are not satisfied with the educational options chosen?  The provisions of the bill (lines 64-66) bar them from returning to the public school:  “Not enroll the qualified student in any school division in the school year for which the application or renewal applies ….”  The student is stranded.

The accounts are available without income limits, which raises the question, “Should this funding be available to those who can easily fund the education of their children?“  “Students whose family's annual household income is not in excess of 300 percent,” is a criterion used elsewhere in the code.  As written, funds from low-income Virginians could be handed over to the wealthy for their “Savings Accounts.”

We are just beginning to implement Virginia’s “Education Improvement Scholarships,” in keeping with the passage of HB321 in 2012.  Shouldn’t we evaluate how well this option is serving Virginia’s students before adopting another “choice” option?

According to multiple studies analyzing assessment data from voucher programs, students offered vouchers do not perform better than their public school peers.   Indeed, public school students have actually been found to outperform private school students when test scores are weighted to reflect socioeconomic level, race, and disability.
This same reenactment clause was added by the Senate to Delegate Dickie Bell’s HB324, which opens the door to full time virtual schools run by corporate providers, which is now on the House Floor again, awaiting House Action on the Senate amendments.  In a highly unusual moment, Delegate Dickie Bell refused to yield to Delegate Krupicka’s question regarding the Senate amendments.  Delegate Vivian Watts pointed out that the amendments did more than Delegate R. Bell’s explanation revealed, and the bill went by for the day.

In a bitter-sweet moment Delegate Rob Bell's HJ577 failed to pass today on a 20-20 vote, with Senator John Watkins’ defection from Republican ranks deciding it’s fate.
YEAS--Black, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Vogel, Wagner--20.

NAYS--Alexander, Barker, Colgan, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Lucas, Marsden, McEachin, Miller, Petersen, Puller, Saslaw, Watkins, Wexton--20.

Twenty-one votes are needed to advance a Constitutional Amendment.  This outcome contrasts sharply with the Senate vote on SJ256.

Unfortunately, it looks like the cow is out of the barn, as Senator Obenshain’s identical SJ256 is now in the House awaiting what appears to be sure passage.  But take a look at the vote on SJ256 when it passed the Senate on a 21-17 vote on 2/4.

YEAS--Black, Carrico, Chafin, Cosgrove, Garrett, Hanger, Martin, McDougle, McWaters, Newman, Norment, Obenshain, Reeves, Ruff, Smith, Stanley, Stosch, Stuart, Vogel, Wagner, Watkins--21.

NAYS--Alexander, Barker, Colgan, Dance, Deeds, Ebbin, Edwards, Favola, Howell, Lewis, Locke, Marsden, McEachin, Miller, Petersen, Saslaw, Wexton--17.

RULE 36--0.

NOT VOTING--Lucas, Puller--2.

Senator Watkins provided the 21st vote and the ultimate passage of SJ256.  So Watkins was the deciding vote for it on 2/4, but the deciding vote against it today.  Will the real John Watkins please stand up?