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Lawmakers give additional $27M to Hope Scholarship program

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Lawmakers give additional $27M to Hope Scholarship program

May 29, 2024 | 6:00 am ET
By Amelia Ferrell Knisely
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Lawmakers give additional $27M to Hope Scholarship program
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Members of the West Virginia Senate passed a bill on May 19, 2024, that will give an additional $27 million to the Hope Scholarship, the state’s education savings account program. (Will Price | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

West Virginia lawmakers will give an additional $27 million to the Hope Scholarship, the state’s education savings account program, from unused state dollars. 

It is one of the nation’s broadest education saving account programs, giving roughly $4,400 per student in taxpayer money to families to use for private school, homeschooling and more. 

During the May special session, lawmakers approved a bill that will give the extra funds to the program. The money will address its increasing enrollment.

More than 6,000 students were awarded the Hope Scholarship in the 2023-24 school year.

“The appropriation needs to be made available as the school year begins in August, so the governor is requesting it now,” explained Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. 

More than $300,000 in Hope Scholarship funds have been used at out-of-state schools that border West Virginia.  

Lawmakers mostly used the recent May special session to allocate funds after the state cleared the threat of a federal “clawback” from the U.S. Department of Education related to education spending.

The legislation, signed by Gov. Jim Justice, also allocated around $3.2 million to counties where student enrollment is increasing. 

Only two counties, Doddridge and Grant, experienced increased enrollment as of Oct. 1, 2023, according to West Virginia Department of Education School Finance Operations Officer Uriah Cummings.

“The bulk of increased enrollment funding allocations were made to public charter schools. All but one of the schools qualified for the additional funding,” he said.

Many counties are grappling with declining enrollment as West Virginia has the nation’s fastest declining population. Census data showed that 47 out of the state’s 55 counties experienced a drop in residents in 2023. 

Tarr explained that the change meant that the state needed to put less dollars into public education under the current school funding formula. 

West Virginia is one of a limited number of states that pays for education based almost solely on enrollment. County revenue is also a factor, as well.

“If enrollment goes down, both state and local share goes down,” Tarr said. “The enrollment decrease combined with the increased revenue to the counties from the personal property taxes and real estate taxes assessed by the county has decreased the state’s required contribution to the school aid formula.”

Students have also left public schools to use the Hope Scholarship; public schools retain county and federal funds when a student leaves, while state dollars follow the student. 

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy estimated that public schools are likely to lose more than $21.6 million with students who have left the system to use the Hope Scholarship. 

West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said schools have less resources to serve remaining students, where caring for kids’ mental and behavioral needs remains a top issue amid worsening school discipline problems. 

Not every school in the state has a full-time counselor or social worker. Only 13 of the state’s 55 counties have a behavioral intervention program; Lee said schools need money to fund programs to help struggling students.

“We could do things like that … If you catch the discipline and mental issues of the kids — emotional issues and mental health issues — with these kids at the elementary school, you don’t have the problems as much in middle schools and high schools,” he said. 

He predicted further school consolidations as enrollment decreases, which would eliminate some local teacher and service personnel jobs. 

Around the state, declining enrollment coupled with waning federal pandemic relief funds have this year resulted in teacher and job cuts.

Kanawha County Schools, the state’s largest school district, lost 500 students this year — a change that resulted in a proposal to cut 55 jobs in its schools. 

This school year, Marion County Schools estimated that it lost around $300,000 that followed students who exited the district for the Hope Scholarship. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include information from the West Virginia Department of Education.