Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, the chair of the newly-formed Senate School Choice Committee. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

A state lawmaker says he wants to roll back a bill he sponsored last year to shield some jail records from scrutiny. Also, there’s a proposal moving forward in the House that would extend a pandemic-era change to help child care providers. But first, lawmakers met today and approved an agency rule that would allow Hope Scholarship funds to be used by students attending largely-unregulated microschools.

Lawmakers extend Hope Scholarship to microschools

The Legislative Rule-making Review Committee quietly approved a Treasurer’s Office rule allowing Hope Scholarship funds to go towards controversial microschool tuition this morning.

After the rule was presented by counsel, no member of the joint committee mentioned or asked questions about the recent inclusion of micro-school tuition as an authorized expense for Hope Scholarship recipients, though the addition was only offered in an emergency amendment filed by the Treasurer’s office earlier this month.

Microschools were defined in law by the Legislature last year; they are largely unregulated educational facilities that serve as something between homeschooling and private school. In spite of the name, a theoretically unlimited number of students can attend one.

One of the scholarship’s most vocal champions and a member of the Rule-Making Review Committee, Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, said it was always the intention of the Hope law to allow students to participate in new forms of alternative education as they emerge.

The move could mean more students will become eligible for Hope Scholarship funds, as any student currently attending a microschool can follow instructions on a Treasurer’s office website to enroll in public school for 45 days before transferring out and becoming eligible. —Ian Karbal

Go deeper: West Virginia officials propose sending public funds to largely unregulated microschools via Hope Scholarship

Senate leader promises to walk back jail secrecy law

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Wednesday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

In an interview, Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said he would roll back the effects of a law passed last year making most records from state jails confidential.

Trump said he regrets creating a new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act.

“We need to make sure that whatever we do doesn’t shrink the accessibility of information from FOIA,” he said.

The change in course comes after reporting from Mountain State Spotlight showed the bill’s primary effect was to further clock in secrecy what happens inside West Virginia’s notoriously deadly jails. The 2022 bill passed unanimously in both chambers but Trump and two other lawmakers involved in the process later said they regretted supporting it.

Trump said he won’t be seeking to repeal the entire law, but will instead attempt to return it to an earlier version, in which a Senate amendment ensured that it wouldn’t override the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Doing so will nullify any effect of the law. Read more. —Dan Lawton

Child care subsidies change could make it easier to raise a family

Tiffany Gale, the owner of Miss Tiffany’s Early Childhood Education House in Weirton, speaks to a committee of lawmakers on Tuesday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Last week, we reported on how difficult it has become for West Virginia families to raise children, highlighting decisions made in recent years by lawmakers that have made child care harder to get. One policy driving that problem is the way child care providers receive payments for children using government subsidies, often children from low-income families. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, providers in the state received funds based on whether the child attended class, instead of the number of students who were enrolled.

The old system meant that if a student on subsidies missed a class for sickness or a family emergency, the day care provider wouldn’t get paid. Tiffany Gale, the owner of Miss Tiffany’s Early Childhood Education House in Weirton, said that missed income is detrimental for businesses that on average pay workers around $10 an hour.

“Parents are paying an astronomical amount,” Gale said. “However, with all of our expenses, we can’t afford to pay people anymore. And not only can we not afford to pay people anymore, but when…it’s based on attendance, we don’t even know how much money we’re going to get.”

And those policies make it more difficult for West Virginians like Gale to keep their businesses afloat and continue to offer child care in a state that desperately needs more options for working parents. According to the Center for American Progress, 64% of West Virginians live in areas without child care providers.

On Tuesday, the House Health and Human Resource Committee advanced HB 2854, a bill that would make enrollment-based subsidies — temporarily put in place during the pandemic but set to expire in September — permanent until at least 2026. 
Gale testified in favor of the bill, and it unanimously passed the committee. It was then sent to the Finance Committee. —Allen Siegler

Go deeper: West Virginia lawmakers rushed to ban abortion. Support for families hasn’t been as urgent