Republicans renew school choice fight in Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginia Republicans are reviving an effort to allow parents to use public money to help pay for private school, a push that has failed multiple times in recent years.

Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) is proposing school choice legislation for the 2023 General Assembly session that would permit parents to apply for a savings account funded with a portion of the per-pupil state money for their child on private school tuition and other educational expenses.

Supporters of the effort, including Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears, filled a briefing room in the Pocahontas Building adjacent to the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond for a press conference Thursday.

Lt. Gov. Earle-Sears called the push for school choice in Virginia “the new Brown vs. the Board of Education fight.”

“This is not a public school versus private school education. It is not about that. In fact, we can do both,” she said on Thursday. “This is about parents making the decision about where their children should attend school. It has always been that that was the choice. It was not for Black children to get into a white school. Never that.”

The measure, House Bill 1508, seeks to establish an education savings account that families can apply for in case they want to pull their children out of public school and into private school. To be eligible, a student must be enrolled in a public school for at least one semester, beginning kindergarten or the first grade.

This bill, and other school choice legislation this year, underscores Republicans’ push to advance Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s agenda of focusing on parental rights.

Earle-Sears, Davis and other speakers said the proposal would help address learning losses prompted by the pandemic and declining Standards of Learning scores, saying children living in lower-income households could benefit from having the option to move to private school.

“All children should have access to the resources necessary to reach their full potential. And parents should be able to choose the educational experience that best suits their children,” Davis said during Thursday’s press conference.

Davis said there’s no income limit on families that want to apply but that students already in private school are ineligible. He added that, on average, parents would receive $6,303.25 for a student, which could go towards tuition, textbooks and other approved expenses.

According to the bill, the Virginia Department of Treasury would find a third-party administrator to manage the program.

Supporter in the room raises concerns

The Virginia House briefing room in the Pocahontas Building was filled with several supporters of the legislation on Thursday, including students from the Rhema Preparatory Academy, a private school in Richmond, and representatives of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia.

Lois Bias, who runs Precious Blessing Academy and Rhema Preparatory Academy, spoke during the press conference and praised the effort to help expand access to private school.

But when she heard that her students’ families wouldn’t be eligible for the funding under the legislation, she raised her hand and asked Davis to explain: “You’re saying that if they’re already in private school, they are not eligible for this?”

“Yes, so, there are some federal funding mechanisms that for the federal funds to be there and for the funding come down that we have to utilize, they have to be for parents of children that have been the public school system the semester prior,” Davis responded.

Bias then asked about her students’ parents, saying some work two jobs just to make the $90 weekly payment for their children. “You’re not helping them at all,” she asked.

Davis said that there are other programs to help those students, but that his legislation is restricted due to the “funding mechanisms.”

What Democrats are saying

Virginia Democrats outlined their priorities ahead of the 2023 General Assembly session Thursday, a plan that emphasizes public school funding.

Davis, chairman of the House Education Committee, told 8News after Thursday’s press conference that he’s had “preliminary” discussions with Democrats to gauge their interest in the proposal but that it was too early in the process to start counting votes.

Similar bills carried by Virginia Republicans since 2016 have failed to be signed into law, including several from Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun). With the reaction Davis’s bill received from Democrats, it appears unlikely to garner enough support to make it to Youngkin’s desk.

“Public schools are a pillar of economic opportunity and growth, the strength of the middle class, and democracy,” Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg (D-Henrico), a history and U.S. Government teacher at Glen Allen High School, wrote on Twitter Friday.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) said on Twitter that the measure would “defund public schools.”