A Republican-led committee on Thursday advanced part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s higher education agenda.
The Senate Education and Health Committee, made up of eight Republicans and seven Democrats, voted 13-2 at its meeting to report Senate Bill 394 from Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, and refer it to the chamber’s Finance Committee.
The bill, the “Borrower’s Bill of Rights,” would create the Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman in an effort to help student loan borrowers.
Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, , voted against the bill.
“Creating a statewide student loan ombudsman will provide students and recent graduates a go-to resource for information,” read the governor’s higher education plan.
The Office of the Qualified Education Loan Ombudsman would be housed within the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. The office’s job, according to the bill, includes helping student loan borrowers “understand their rights and responsibilities” and helping with complaints from those borrowers.
The office would also create a student loan borrower course by Dec. 1, 2019.
A similar bill — also patroned by Howell — passed through the Senate last year but died in a House of Delegates committee.
Virginia is home to about 952,400 student loan borrowers, according to data published in September by the U.S. Department of Education, constituting about $33.1 billion in student loan debt. The average borrower has about $35,000 worth of debt, according to the federal data.
Across the country, more than 44 million U.S. citizens have student loan debt and the average monthly payment is $351, according to Federal Reserve data.
The committee took up several other education-related bills Thursday:
VCCS keeping name
The Virginia Community College System will be called that for at least another year.
Senate Bill 638 from Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, would have changed the system’s name to the Virginia College System. Committee members voted 13-1 to pass the bill by indefinitely.
Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, was the lone opponent.
The community college system isn’t the only Virginia body keeping its name.
Under Senate Bill 870 from Sen. Bill DeSteph , R-Virginia Beach, the governing authority at Virginia’s public colleges would have been called the board of trustees. Many are now called the board of visitors. The committee unanimously voted to pass it by.
In a party-line vote, the Senate Education and Health Committee killed a proposal to expand the number of hours for kindergarten students.
Senate Bill 274 from Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, would have increased the minimum number of instructional hours in a school year for kindergarten students from 540 hours to 990 hours. The committee voted 8-7 against the bill.
The bill would have taken effect July 1, 2020.
Virginia schools will again not be required to have a full-time nurse at each school.
The committee opted to continue Senate Bill 366 from Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, to 2019. The bill would have required Virginia schools to have a full-time nurse at each school or at least one full-time nurse per 550 students in grades K-12.
A House subcommittee on Wednesday recommended reporting a similar bill.