Lawsuit Could Delay Rollout of Hope Scholarship Program in West Virginia
CHARLESTON — With two months until the application period opens, a lawsuit filed Wednesday could delay the rollout of West Virginia’s foray into the educational savings account arena.
The New Jersey-based Education Law Center filed a lawsuit in Kanawha County Circuit Court Wednesday seeking a judgment and an injunction against the Hope Scholarship program.
Putnam County parent Travis Beaver, Upshur County parent Karen Kalar and Raleigh County teacher Wendy Peters filed suit against State Treasurer Riley Moore, State Superintendent of Schools Clayton Burch, State Board of Education President Miller Hall, Senate President Craig Blair, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw and Gov. Jim Justice.
Beaver, Kalar, and Peters are represented by attorneys with the Education Law Center and Charleston attorney John Tinney Jr. They argue the Hope Scholarship violates provisions of the West Virginia Constitution requiring the state to provide a “thorough and efficient system of free schools.”
“Public education is a fundamental right in West Virginia,” Tinney wrote. “The state’s founding leaders enshrined the importance of public education in the state Constitution from the outset. The Legislature can take no action that would exceed or frustrate this affirmative constitutional obligation.
“Likewise, funding public education is considered West Virginia’s highest constitutional priority along with the State’s obligation to repay its debt,” Tinney continued. “Any action that depletes the funding to public schools is subject to strict scrutiny. The most exacting judicial review.”
The Hope Scholarship gives parents the option to use a portion of their per-pupil expenditure from the state School Aid Formula for educational expenses, such as private-school tuition, home tutoring, learning aids and other acceptable expenses.
At implementation, any student who is enrolled full time in a public school for either the entire previous year or for 45 calendar days is eligible to apply for the scholarship, though students would not be able to remain enrolled full-time in public schools to continue receiving the scholarship.
The State Treasurer is charged with managing the Hope Scholarship program. The application period opens on March 1 with the program beginning at the start of the 2022-23 school year.
The Legislature passed House Bill 2013 creating the Hope Scholarship last year. The bill caps the Hope Scholarship at $4,600 per student and could cost about $24 million per year when implemented in 2022 if every eligible student applies.
The bill also opens the Hope Scholarship program to eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026, increasing the cost to as much as $102.9 million by fiscal year 2027.
The Hope Scholarship has been praised by state and national school choice supporters as among the most expansive education savings account programs in the nation. In his court filing, Tinney frequently refers to the Hope Scholarship as a “voucher” program.
“HB 2013 uses public funds to pay for vouchers for private education and homeschooling expenses and will siphon millions of dollars of public money away from public education,” Tinney wrote. “Ultimately, the state will be subsidizing private schools and homeschooling at the cost of over $100 million dollars every year.”
Tinney also said the Hope Scholarship Board created by HB 2013 usurps the authority of the state Board of Education, and the law doesn’t include specific anti-discrimination provisions already covered by federal law.
Supporters of the Hope Scholarship, including education advocacy group yes. every kid. and the West Virginia chapter of the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, spoke against the lawsuit Wednesday.
“It’s disappointing that this effort attempts to take away access to Hope Scholarships that empower nearly every student at public schools to access a customized education that suits their unique needs, whether that’s public, private, charter, virtual, tutoring, or any other type of educational experience,” said Executive Director Andrew Clark.
“This lawsuit merely represents special interests’ latest fleeting effort to keep kids from having the educational flexibility they deserve,” said AFP-WV State Director Jason Huffman. “It’s disappointing that the aim of this bogus lawsuit is to delay and deny thousands of parents their new-found ability to ensure their kids have access to the education that best suits their unique needs.”