Homeschooled students present during the 2019 session of the West Virginia Legislature. Homeschooled students are among those who would be eligible for public money through an Education Savings Bill under consideration. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature.

West Virginia lawmakers are pushing two education bills this year they say will help parents find options that better meet their children’s needs.

The buzzword is “school choice.” The bills would expand the number of charter schools that could open in West Virginia, and also allow parents who choose private schools or homeschooling to access the funds public schools would have received for their kids.

Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said she is promoting the bills because “they will help all students and families find the educational option that works best for them.”

But what lawmakers are billing as more choices for all won’t necessarily help many West Virginia children who need that help the most — kids with disabilities.

New options, such as Education Savings Accounts or ESAs, could help some kids, like Katie Switzer’s three-year-old daughter, Ruth. 

Switzer, of Morgantown, said that if West Virginia’s education savings account bill passes, it would be life-changing for her daughter, who has a speech disorder. 

“That money could make a huge difference in her quality of life,” she said. “Not just as a four-year-old or five-year-old. Learning these skills now is critical during this time period for her development.”

Even so, the bills create options that aren’t realistic for many children with disabilities, and risk funneling money away from the public schools where they would remain. And at worst, one of the measures actively discriminates against these students.

While some additional money would make a difference for Ruth, Huntington parent Christy Black says neither charter schools or ESAs would have worked for her daughter Gracie, who has Down syndrome.

Gracie Black, center and pictured with other pages, regularly serves in the Page Program at the West Virginia Legislature. Her mother, Christy Black, laughed, describing how she hadn’t told anyone at the Capitol that Gracie had Down syndrome when she signed her up. But of course, it worked out fine, she said. “Gracie’s well-known at the Capitol,” her mother said. “The legislators love her.” Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature.

Classmates in traditional schools have helped Gracie with her social skills, her speech, and her sense of independence, her mother said. 

“They not only help Gracie, but you know what?” her mother said. “She helps them, too.”

Now, Gracie is approaching graduation and plans to attend college, her mother said. Black worries about those who will come after. 

She said that if traditional public schools lose funding to private schools and charter schools, those schools may be unable to afford the services her daughter needed to thrive. 

Education savings accounts

Education savings accounts give parents the state tax money that would have gone to the school district for their child’s education to spend elsewhere, including at private schools or companies that sell home-school curriculum.

In West Virginia, that amount is $4,600, which is based on the amount of money the state spends on the average student. 

Black, who works for the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council, noted that some children with disabilities need services that can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

“[An ESA] sounds good on paper, but then when you go to actually provide it, it’s not enough money,” she said.

Jason Bedrick, director of policy for EdChoice, an education savings account advocacy group, said some states are using ESAs specifically to give children with disabilities more choice and support. 

In four of the five states with ESAs — Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina and Tennessee — only children with disabilities are allowed to use them, Bedrick said. 

Arizona’s program is slightly broader: it’s for students with disabilities, children of active-duty military, children who are adopted through the state foster care system, Native American children living on a reservation, and students that were assigned to a school rated a D or an F on the state rating system.

If West Virginia lawmakers approve House Bill 2013, the state would make any student eligible for an ESA. It would be the broadest ESA law in the country — although Bedrick said more states than usual are considering ESA legislation this year.

Bedrick said EdChoice recommends following Arizona’s lead. He said Arizona offers additional money for students with disabilities, and weights the funding, depending on the additional services required.

Bedrick said this kind of program — one that offers additional resources to students with disabilities — can help kids who run into problems in the public school system.

“Not every child’s needs are going to be entirely met in the local school,” he said. “So that’s why it’s great to have a variety of options so that families have a much greater chance of actually finding an environment where their child can thrive.”

Christy Black noted that many parents of kids with disabilities do encounter problems in the public school system. There’s a lot of lingo to interpret and policy to navigate. She frequently receives calls for advice from other parents. 

But she also said kids with disabilities require additional services that cost more, such as occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, or curriculum adaptations, and public schools receive funding in exchange for those services.

She also worries about resources being drained from traditional public schools that may already struggle to educate kids with disabilities.

“What’s happened in other states is that within the first year, students [who leave] end up coming back to the public school, and then they’re already further behind than what they were to begin with,” she said.

In an interview, Del. Joe Ellington, the lead sponsor of the ESA bill, agreed the fund may “not necessarily” cover the needs of kids with disabilities. 

But as it is, some parents feel their kids are “stuck,” he said. 

That’s how Katie Switzer feels. 

She said her daughter went from speaking about twenty words less than a year ago to speaking in full sentences after they found a private speech therapist best-equipped to treat childhood speech apraxia. But they have to pay for it out-of-pocket, as health insurance doesn’t cover it. 

Ruth Switzer, of Morgantown, turns four years old this summer. Switzer has a speech disorder, and her mother, Katie, hopes legislation passes this year that will help her pay for speech therapy. Photo courtesy Katie Switzer.

Being able to access additional money by homeschooling their children wouldn’t pay for all of Ruth’s educational costs, but it would go far enough, she said.

Switzer and her husband would still have to pay for home-school curriculum and supplies, and she noted some home-school families have co-operative arrangements, which also cost money but encourage socialization. 

But for now, Switzer thinks this is the arrangement that would work best for her family, and she said she appreciated the ability to change her mind about that and explore different options if needed later on.

The bill’s proponents, like Del. Ellington and Sen. Rucker, say that parents who opt to take advantage of an ESA, also referred to in the bill as the “Hope Scholarship,” can purchase disability services from public schools.

“$4,600 is a significant amount in WV and it will definitely help those who are not finding what they need right now in the zip code they reside in,” Rucker said in an email.  “There are many different levels of special needs and some have higher costs than others. But these students may prefer an individualized education … and they can use the Hope Scholarship funds to make that possible.”

Beyond disabilities, Bedrick acknowledged that rural families with fewer resources would still have more limited options than other families. 

“Look, there’s no one policy intervention that’s a panacea that solves all the problems, including all the challenges that you face in rural areas,” he said. “But what this does is it increases the number of options that those families have.”

Charter schools

Charter schools receive public funding, but are subject to less regulation than traditional schools. 

One size doesn’t fit all, said Ellington, House Education Committee Chairman.  

“Some people need alternatives,” he said.

And charter schools do receive extra funding for students with disabilities. 

But Paul O’Neill, co-founder and senior fellow at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said his organization is opposed to a “dangerous” provision in this year’s charter school bill, House Bill 2012. 

As written, the virtual charter school option included in the bill permits charter schools to discourage parents from enrolling children with disabilities.

“A virtual public charter school shall not enroll a student who needs special education services unless the student and the parent or guardian of the student first meet with the student’s IEP team, or its equivalent, and discuss whether enrollment in the virtual public charter school is an appropriate placement for the student,” the bill says.

In a letter to Rucker, O’Neill, an education lawyer, said that provision is “not only terrible, inequitable policy but also simply illegal.”

O’Neill said that in a brick-and-mortar charter school, the child would be admitted, then the school would determine how to meet their needs. In rare cases, they wouldn’t be able to accommodate the student, he said. 

In West Virginia’s bill, virtual charter schools are not required to even provisionally admit those students, he noted, before discussion of “whether enrollment in the virtual public charter school is an appropriate placement.”

He said he believes that makes the bill illegal under federal civil rights and disability law, a point which Rucker disputes. He also said he doesn’t understand the reasoning in including the provision, as plenty of kids with disabilities could be served by the virtual school option created by the bill.

“If I were talking to you any other year, I think somebody could make an argument that well, you know, ‘I really can’t serve kids with disabilities virtually, in a meaningful way.’ But we’ve gone through a year of COVID,” O’Neill said.

“So we’ve had a year of creativity and problem-solving and collaboration with parents and finding ways to make this stuff work.”

As for whether charter schools are successful, he noted that sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren’t. They aren’t a “magical solution,” he said.

“It has a lot to do with the intent of the people opening the school,” he said.

Black, of Huntington, said is concerned about other forms of discrimination in the legislation.

She said that while the West Virginia bill provides for a lottery system for enrollment in charter schools, schools aren’t required to be equipped to meet special needs kids’ needs.

“If those students were integrated, and could get their needs met,” she said, she’d “be the first person out there saying, ‘Let’s do this.’”

She said the bill needs a provision specifically stating that students with a range of disabilities must be accepted, or she worried schools could choose to accept students with only some milder disabilities.

“I think sometimes charter schools don’t want students with more severe disabilities because of the pure costs,” she said.

Rucker, a leading proponent of charter schools in the Senate, said there is “nothing in the charter school bill that allows them to segregate special need students and no one is going to be forced to attend a public charter school if we were to ever have one.”

She also noted that charter schools are public.

“And just like any other public school, they have to follow the exact rules. They have to provide the services. They also get the special education funding that follows the student.”

However, the language of the existing charter school law states that while charter schools may not discriminate or limit enrollment to certain children, it explicitly states that people opening charter schools shouldn’t interpret that section to mean that they can’t open schools specifically for students with special needs.

‘That is segregation.

One consequence of both the charter school and ESA bills could be separating kids with disabilities and those without — even more than they already are. 

Black remains concerned that if parents want to send their kids with disabilities to charter schools, only schools that exclusively serve students with disabilities will accept them. She’s observed that happen in other states.

“And to me, that is stepping back,” she said. “That is segregation.”

She noted that when she was in school, students with disabilities used separate classrooms and buses. 

“And I didn’t know anyone with a disability,” she said. “And I remember that, you know, I remember that negative stereotype of the special-ed table and the special-ed bus.”

Advocates have fought hard for civil rights laws for people with disabilities, she said. And while her daughter Gracie is sometimes pulled out of class for extra help, most of the time she’s in the same classes and lunchroom as everyone else.

Gracie Black leads the conga line during a Buddy Walk a few years ago at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston. Those walks bring together kids with and kids without disabilities. Her mother, Christy Black, said that public school has been good for Gracie’s confidence. Photo courtesy Christy Black.

Black said that schools that exclusively serve special needs kids can be “havens for abuse.”

She noted that has happened in traditional schools as well, including several in West Virginia.  

But when Gracie experienced bullying, she said, her daughter’s friends put a stop to it.

“We had an incident in school where my daughter was bullied,” she said. “And do you know who came to her aid? The other students. Her friends. Her friends without disabilities.”

“And it was taken care of immediately,” she said.

In one instance, three friends separately reported the problem. In some cases, school officials may be more likely to believe those without disabilities, Black said. 

Black said she hopes those friends will think of Gracie when some of them are running the state someday.

“Those are the people that’s gonna be helping her out when we’re gone. And those are the people that are going to be making decisions, maybe about other people with disabilities, and they’re gonna think back about Gracie.”

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.