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The Hope Scholarship will continue to hurt West Virginia public schools

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The Hope Scholarship will continue to hurt West Virginia public schools

Jun 04, 2024 | 5:55 am ET
By Leann Ray
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The Hope Scholarship will continue to hurt West Virginia public schools
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During the May special session, West Virginia lawmakers approved giving $27 million to the Hope Scholarship program. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

West Virginia public schools need money, that’s no secret.

Many schools are struggling to figure out what they’re going to do when they lose the temporary federal pandemic funding, which ends in September. For the 2024-2025 school year, there will be $392 million less in funding statewide for public schools. 

Schools are desperate to fill that gap in funding. The Cabell County Board of Education tried to make up the $11 million it’s losing by taking it from the county’s parks and libraries funding, but voters weren’t having it.

As part of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, the state has received $1.187 billion over the last few years to help students return to the classroom after closing during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, of the $368 million of the third round of ESSER funds, nearly half of that funding was used for personnel costs, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. Now that the funding is ending, many of those positions are in question. 

Schools aren’t only losing temporary funding. West Virginia is one of a very few states that funds education based almost entirely on school enrollment numbers. Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said because of that school funding formula, the state would need to put less money into public education. Most of West Virginia’s counties — 47 out of 55 — are losing population, which has led to declining enrollment. 

But while public schools are struggling with funding, the West Virginia Legislature gave $27 million more of unused state dollars to the Hope Scholarship.

The Hope Scholarship is an “education savings account program” — also known as a school voucher program — that gives taxpayer money to individual students who can use it to attend private schools, for homeschooling and other costs, such as tutoring, summer programs, “educational services” and technology equipment. 

While these programs are promoted as a way to help families pay for tuition, it’s not always how the money is used. In Arizona, an ABC affiliate found that families were using the Arizona Empowerment Scholarships Account money for golf equipment, lessons on driving luxury cars, ski resort passes and trampoline parks. In Florida, theme park tickets, televisions, stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, surfboards and treadmills are among the items that school vouchers are allowed to be used for. These are all items the parents of public school students have to pay for themselves, but tax dollars can pay for private and homeschooled kids’ field trips and sports equipment? 

West Virginia has the nation’s broadest version of the program — if a child is eligible for kindergarten, they are eligible to apply, and all other students are required to attend school for 45 days before applying. In some other states, the programs are limited to students with special needs or individualized education programs, or they must attend school for at least 100 days before applying. 

Recipients of the Hope Scholarship receive roughly $4,400 per student per school year. In the 2023-2024 school year, more than 6,000 students received the Hope Scholarship, taking away approximately $26.4 million that would otherwise go to public schools. 

The program has no restrictions or requirements that the money go to education providers located in West Virginia, and as of August 2023, $300,000 went out of state. More than $117,600 went to education providers in Maryland, and a private Christian school in Pennsylvania received $42,400 in Hope Scholarship money. The Washington Post found that billions in tax dollars go to religious schools across the country through school vouchers.

There’s also no requirement that the schools be accredited. More than $15,000 in Hope Scholarship funding went to a microschool in Martinsburg where parents found students just hanging out and playing on their phones. The school shut down, and paid the state back the Hope Scholarship money. 

There is no enrollment cap on the Hope Scholarship, and there’s no income limits for people who apply, meaning there’s no restriction on how much money can be taken away from public schools.

School voucher proponents claim that it opens up school choice for all families. However, the Center on Budget and Policy found that while the Hope Scholarship provides $4,489, the average private school tuition in West Virginia is $6,200 per year, meaning parents are still on the hook for thousands in tuition.

In 2021, private school parents held a meeting to teach others how to work around the system to become eligible for the Hope Scholarship, like temporarily enrolling their children in online public school classes while they were still attending their private schools. When the Gazette-Mail reporter, Ryan Quinn, questioned the Cross Lanes Christian School administrator who said the school was working on a plan about dual enrollment, he said that the meeting wasn’t for the public. 

The Hope Scholarship, like most school voucher programs, benefits the wealthy more than low income families.

If West Virginia public schools are broken, reducing their funding won’t fix them. If we want better public schools, the state needs to support them with appropriate funding, giving teachers a livable wage and listening when educators say there are problems with discipline and actually make an effort to help. 

This past legislative session was filled with nonsense like getting “In God We Trust” put in every classroom, and whether or not a teacher could discuss intelligent design — which is not a scientific theory — with students. Fund public schools. If we have a better public education system for our children, we all win.