‘We deserve school choice’: Lt. gov. promotes bill to give parents more power in education

A rally for parents rights in education near the State Capitol this afternoon.
Published: Jan. 5, 2023 at 9:20 PM EST|Updated: Jan. 5, 2023 at 9:21 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears met with state legislators and activists Thursday afternoon at the Pocahontas building in downtown Richmond for the Rally for Education Rights promoting the recently introduced House Bill 1508, which would give parents more of a say in how and where their child would learn.

The bill would essentially take the money that the federal government already allocates to a child in public school and let parents decide how it’s spent.

“Rich parents are not waiting on a government program to decide where to send their children to school. They’ve already made that choice. What’s happening now is what about the rest of us who don’t have that choice,” Earle-Sears said.

State Del. Glenn Davis, the House Education Committee chairman, introduced the bill Wednesday and presented it in a tightly-packed room of parents, pastors and private educators in favor of more parental choice in the classroom.

Davis says the bill, if passed, would redirect approximately one-third of the state education budget to be put into an Education Success Account, which acts as a savings account that parents of qualified students could apply to use for one year.

“Every parent has the right to decide about what is best for their child, where they have the best chance for that education, and that’s what we’re returning back to the parents,” Davis said. “For way too long, students have been trapped in school systems that are failing them, especially in our historically black communities, and all children should have access to the resources necessary in order to reach their full potential.”

The money a parent would receive would vary based on the area of the state they lived, but Davis says parents would receive, on average, over $6,000 for their child’s education.

“The standard of quality per pupil funding to locality changes per locality depending on the compositing index, although on average is what the average parent would get in the commonwealth of Virginia from this program. On average, they would get $6,303.25,” Davis said.

The bill says parents could use the money to move their child to another public school or private school and could be used for tuition, deposits, fees, and required textbooks at a private elementary school or secondary school in Virginia.

“We have to start somewhere, and if this is the trickle to make the flood let’s do it because we are talking about lives and a child’s future, and if we don’t start now, then the school-to-prison pipeline that has started will continue,” Earle-Sears said.

Davis says the bill would also have built-in checks and balances to ensure the funds are appropriately spent.

He also says the bill is intended to be accessed by all parents regardless of education or economic background and makes no stipulation on the income of the parents. However, he says the bill in its current form does have limitations.

Activists like Richmond Pastor Valerie Coley says as a former educator that she’s seen children be pushed through the public school system who were ready to move on to the next grade.

She believes this program could keep children from being left behind in the school system and address critical learning gaps caused by wide-scale virtual learning during the 2020 pandemic.

“We definitely need this in place for black and brown children. They should have that freedom of education, the liberation, as parents, we should have the voice to decide where our children will be educated,” Coley said. “I do think there needs to be some revamping and that there are other options that need to be put in place. This is one of the greatest implementations that could possibly happen for black and brown children.”

Because the funds are taken directly from the federal government, the bill only allows for parents whose children are already enrolled in a public school to move their child to another public or private school, but parents of children enrolled in private school first would not have the same access.

Davis says this so that the federal government can keep track of where the money is going, but it would ultimately mean that a parent of a child in any private school who would like to take advantage of the program would first have to put their student in a public school for at least 6 months before they could use the funds to move their child to a school of the parents choosing.

“You cannot just say my kids are in private school today and tomorrow I’m gonna do this, and now I want to funds,” Davis said. “You know how to have a child in a public school the semester prior in order to apply, or it has to be the first time for a child in kindergarten or first grade. This isn’t about someone going to a private school today and being paid for it tomorrow. This is for the students like the lieutenant governor said who have been left behind.”

“We can’t change the federal government until we change the federal government, but we’re working on it,” Earle-Sears said.

Davis says he and other legislators are working on a way to add a provision to the bill that would give parents of private school students the same opportunity to access funding and choose where their child goes to school.

In theory, Davis says any unused funds from the one-third allocated through the bill would be returned to the public school to grow its remaining two-thirds funding. Additionally, Davis says other funding streams public schools rely on would not be tapped into to fund the bill’s implementation.

“I would challenge anyone to tell me a better business deal than that one,” Davis said.

“This is not a public school vs. a private school education. It’s not about that. In fact, we can do both,” Earle-Sears said.

Virginia Democrats say they aren’t buying the Republican legislators’ claim the proposal could do. In a statement, Virginia House Democratic Caucus leader Don Scott said he believes Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is deliberately undermining the effectiveness of public education with the House bill.

“The bottom line is that for too long, our schools have been underfunded, and our kids have suffered because of it. And while Republicans would rather spend time parroting the national MAGA agenda by pitting parents against schools, this does nothing to address the real problems our education system is facing here in Virginia,” Scott said. “Democrats are focused on investing in our schools to ensure our children have the resources to succeed – because our classrooms are a place of learning, not a battleground for culture wars.”

Legislators at the rally said they don’t believe they will have a problem selling the idea of parental choice to constituents. However, if they face any opposition, it will primarily be in the House chambers. As the rally ended, Earle-Sears called on those in attendance to pressure their lawmakers into voting for the bill when the time comes.

“This is not a fight against teachers because they just want to teach. They love the profession, but they’re being driven out because of all of this noise,” Earle-Sears said. This is about my child and the decisions that I make for my child. So call your legislators and be in their faces.

The next Virginia legislative session where lawmakers will determine the future of this bill begins Wednesday, Jan. 11.