Virginia Republicans tout school choice bill; Democrats call it a nonstarter

Published: Jan. 26, 2023 at 10:55 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - A new report shows student scores in Virginia and across the country are on the decline.

As one way to address that, Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly are hoping to pass a bill they say would give parents a choice about where to send their children to school, while Democrats say the bill would harm those it’s trying to help.

“Nationally, we saw huge declines. We saw the largest drops ever in math. The largest drops in 30 years in reading,” National Center for Education Statistician Grady Wilburn said.

It’s also happening in Virginia. This graph shows 4th grade students in the state had an 11-point drop in math and this one shows a 10-point drop in reading between 2019 and 2022. Virginia’s 8th graders saw an eight-point drop in math.

“The reality is we’re underfunding public education in excess of $400 million a year,” State Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25) said.

Republicans in the state are hoping to pass a bill that creates what they’re calling education success accounts. It would create an account with funds ranging from $4000 to $6000 a year and allow parents to send their children to private or parochial schools if they wish.

“Remember now, this is the parent making the best decision for their child and that’s what this is about. This is about the money following the child because the parents want to make that decision, so it’s not even a voucher system. You’re going to have a third party who’s going to be sending the money where the parent wants it to go,” Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears said.

Preston Green, a professor of Education at the University of Connecticut, who is from Virginia and went to UVA and has studied voucher programs extensively, says funding is only part of the problem with this bill.

“When you look very closely at the laws and protections for students from marginalized backgrounds, for instance, many of them leave a lot to be desired. I’m very concerned about the issues they pose for under resourced school districts,” Green said.

Green says the legislation harms students with disabilities because only private schools that receive federal funding are required to follow section 504 and religious schools are not required at all. It’s a law that protects students with disabilities, ensuring schools provide them with appropriate accommodations.

“Right now, special needs children, if they are not able to get what they need through the public schools, are already getting that through private schools,” Sears said.

Delegate Glenn Davis is on the ground trying to get it passed in the General Assembly.

“We’re already talking to people on the other side of the political aisle, both in the House and the Senate, but more importantly we’ve got community members coming up from across the commonwealth to meet with those delegates and members and speak to the bill,” Davis, a Republican from Virginia Beach, said.

Deeds says this bill is a nonstarter. “I’m not going to make excuses, we’ve got problems with some of our public schools, but my sense is that we fix those problems, we don’t just defund the system.”

Opponents also say this program would favor rich kids who can make up the difference between the amount given and private school tuition, while proponents say the wealthy are already making those choices.