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Judge blocks Hope Scholarship from going forward

ON HOLD — Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit heard arguments Wednesday in a case to block West Virginia’s Hope Scholarship program. -- Steven Allen Adams

CHARLESTON — Parents hoping to use a portion of the West Virginia school aid formula for private or home school education for their children this coming school year were left in limbo Wednesday after a judge blocked the Hope Scholarship program.

After hearing arguments for and against motions Wednesday morning, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit granted a temporary and permanent injunction preventing further implementation of the Hope Scholarship program, calling the law “null and void.”

“In my view, the Legislature has violated its constitutional obligations regarding public education and funding by enacting…the Hope Scholarship,” Tabit said. “In my view, the plaintiffs and the public school system will suffer irreparable harm if the scholarship program and the legislation establishing it are not enjoined from being implemented.”

The Hope Scholarship gives parents the option to use a portion, $4,600, 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.

The State Treasurer’s Office is charged with managing the Hope Scholarship program, with the program beginning at the start of the 2022-2023 school year. More than 3,146 Hope Scholarship applications have been awarded since the May 15 deadline at a cost of about $14.5 million.

“I certainly plan to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia,” said State Treasurer Riley Moore in a statement. “This Program was authorized by the Legislature and we firmly believe it is constitutional. We will vigorously defend our implementation of this Program, which the people of West Virginia have clearly demonstrated they want, so that West Virginia families can choose the educational opportunities best suited for their children.”

Only students who are enrolled full time in a public school for either the entire previous year or for 45 calendar days are eligible to apply for the scholarship, but the program opens up to all eligible public, private and homeschool students by 2026 and could cost as much as $102.9 million.

Putnam County parent Travis Beaver, Upshur County parent Karen Kalar and Raleigh County teacher Wendy Peters filed suit last January against 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.

Peters and Beaver were in the courtroom Wednesday. Both said the ruling would help keep taxpayer dollars within the public education system.

“I’m very happy,” Peters said. “I just think it’s a win for public education and for our children in particular who are more vulnerable.”

“I think it’s a great win for the public school funds and all the children in public schools,” Beaver said. “We should never be diverting money from public schools to pay for private anything. That’s their own choice.”

Not all in attendance agreed with Tabit’s decision. Jamie Buckland, a Raleigh County native and founder of West Virginia Families United for Education, has worked to help families apply for the Hope Scholarship. She said blocking the program for this school year will hurt poor families who believe public schools are failing their children but don’t have the means to seek help.

“I am just concerned for the parents who were trusting that they would be able to use these monies this year for the education of their child,” Buckland said. “It’s frustrating to have a ruling where that opportunity’s been taken away…this was going to be an opportunity that would’ve afforded parents who are looking for alternatives for children whose needs are not being met in the public school system.”

Last month, state education officials Hall and Burch filed a response to the lawsuit in support of the parents, breaking with the governor, Legislature and state treasurer. Michael Taylor, the attorney representing Hall and Burch Wednesday, said the Hope Scholarship hits school systems two ways: by taking away funding from the school when the student leaves; and by decreasing enrollment, resulting in a reduction of teachers and staff.

“The Board of Education is an independent entity under the Constitution and their role is to protect and oversee and supervise public education,” Taylor said. “There can be no dispute and no doubt that this is an attack on public education. No one can dispute that incentivizing students to leave public education for private education is going to result in less funding for schools.”

Joshua House, an attorney with the libertarian Institute for Justice, was representing two Hope Scholarship parents, Katie Switzer and Jennifer Compton. House’s arguments before Tabit resulted in a tense back-and-forth between the attorney and the judge over the constitutionality of the Hope Scholarship. Speaking afterward, House said he plans to appeal, though it remains to be seen if an appeal will go to the state Supreme Court or the new Intermediate Court of Appeals.

“The West Virginia Constitution says that the Legislature has a duty to do more than just fund public schools…the same article of the Constitution says that. So, we know that the Legislature is not limited to only doing public schools to promote education in the state,” House said. “This idea that money is going to be taken from public schools is just false.”

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose office is representing the state in the Hope Scholarship case, also said he plans to appeal the ruling.

“I am disappointed with this ruling,” Morrisey said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “We will appeal because this is an important law that provides parents greater freedom to choose how they educate their children. Our kids deserve the best educational options–we will fight for our kids and the hard working families of our state to retain this law and uphold its constitutionality.”

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