CHARLESTON — The board governing West Virginia’s expansive educational savings account program approved provisions Wednesday to re-start the program after the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals lifted an injunction blocking it.
The Hope Scholarship Board met Wednesday afternoon for the first time since this summer after a lower court ruling granted a permanent injunction halting the program. The board approved amendments to the emergency rule that set out how the educational savings account/voucher program operates.
The approved amendments will allow the State Treasurer’s Office to send out Hope Scholarship funds to families approved by the board by Jan. 15, 2023, for both the first semester and the second semester of the 2022-2023 school year.
The amendments will also empower the board to develop a plan for sending out Hope Scholarship funds to parents who had to return their students to the public school system on a prorated rate for the time the student spent in either private/religious school or home school.
Families who were previously approved by the board for Hope Scholarship funds remain eligible for funds and will not need to apply again, including parents who placed their children back into public school. Those parents will need to decide by January if they wish to continue in the Hope Scholarship program or keep their children in public school and forfeit the funds.
“We’re going to approve within this rule the ability to essentially pay everybody who had been awarded the Hope Scholarship previously and who had gone on and chosen a path, whether it be private school, or some individualized learning plan, like home school,” said State Treasurer Riley Moore in a press conference prior to the Hope Scholarship Board meeting.
“Now, if they decided to go on back to public school but were in private school for instance for a certain period of time, that will be prorated,” Moore continued. “At the end of the day, we’re going to make everybody whole.”
The Hope Scholarship gives parents the option to use a portion, $4,300, of their per-pupil expenditure from the state School Aid Formula for educational expenses, such as private or religious school tuition, home school, tutoring, learning aids and other acceptable expenses. More than 3,146 Hope Scholarship applications have been awarded since the May 15 deadline at a cost of about $14.5 million.
In a 3-2 decision released last week, the state Supreme Court issued an order dissolving a permanent injunction issued by Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit in July blocking the Hope Scholarship after several parents filed a lawsuit in January against the program. A majority opinion from the court detailing its reasoning behind the order has not been released.
The West Virginia Attorney General’s Office represented the State Treasurer’s Office in the legal case. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, also a member of the Hope Scholarship Board, said they were awaiting the court’s reasoning.
“There are huge implications with that decision,” Morrisey said, joining Moore in Wednesday’s press conference. “We’re pleased that the Supreme Court made the decision because if the earlier decision had stood, this would have been very speculative in terms of allowing any taxpayers to file a lawsuit when there may be some potential down the line for harm.
“We also don’t think that the Legislature should be straightjacketed on these educational matters,” Morrisey continued. “We support having the best possible public education out there. But the Legislature does have discretion and I think the court cases and the constitution has been clear on that. They are able to fund these private sector options. This is going to mean great things for West Virginia.”
One of the issues raised by opponents of the Hope Scholarship was the taking of taxpayer dollars specifically set aside in the school aid formula, which provided state funding to county school systems based on enrollment numbers. Speaking during a virtual briefing with reporters Tuesday, Gov. Jim Justice said he supported the Hope Scholarship, but it might be better to fund it through a mechanism outside the school aid formula.
“I’m a real believer that we don’t need to pull those dollars out of public (school) funds,” Justice said. “We may be able to set up a bucket that basically has $25 million in it, and the bucket is continually funded from the state … every year, therefore we don’t have to pull those dollars from public (schools). But we can still give real choice and we can help the folks who are out there that elect to go to a private school or whatever it may be.”
“I don’t think that is a bad idea at all. I think that would be great,” Moore said Wednesday. “Whatever fulfills the mandate that the Legislature and the Governor had agreed to as it relates to the Hope Scholarship. Whatever makes it easier for me to get that money flowing, I’m all for that.”
The Hope Scholarship board also voted to suspend accepting any new Hope Scholarship application requests for the duration of the 2022-2023 school year except for newly eligible students who have been enrolled in public schools for at least 45 days.