Supreme Court majority rules in favor of public aid for students leaving public schools

A majority of West Virginia Supreme Court justices dissolved an injunction against a scholarship for students leaving the public school system.

The Hope Scholarship was being challenged over whether it violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education system.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit earlier ordered an injunction to halt distribution of the Hope Scholarship for about 3,000 students in its first year. The five-member state Supreme Court just heard oral arguments in an appeal two days ago.

Today, justices indicated they would enter the order now as a matter of timeliness while entering a more developed opinion later. Today’s filing indicated that Chief Justice John Hutchison and Justice Bill Wooton disagreed with simply entering an order. The other justices are Beth Walker, Tim Armstead and Haley Bunn.

“Acting without undue delay given the nature of the constitutional matters at issue and the need to resolve the appeal in an expedited manner, the Court issues its decision by this order with a detailed opinion to follow,” three justices wrote in a three-page filing.

The Legislature passed and the governor then signed a bill establishing the Hope Scholarships in 2021. The program would provide money for students leaving the public school system to use for a variety of education costs. West Virginia’s program also allows students old enough to enter the school system for the time to be eligible immediately.

Families can use the accounts for a range of expenses like homeschooling, private school tuition, online learning, after-school or summer-learning programs or educational therapies. West Virginia’s law is one of the most wide open in the country because eligibility in most other states with similar programs is more narrowly defined.

The scholarship amount varies each school year. For the 2022-23 year, that amount was to be about $4,300. So the total amount of public funding so far would be about $13 million.

Over time, that amount would increase. A fiscal note for the Legislature anticipated the cost could be more than $100 million upon full implementation.

People challenging the program say it naturally diminishes the resources of the public education system. Those who defend the program say the state can support a solid public education system while also providing the flexibility of more options.

More than 3,000 students had already been awarded the scholarship, which would have been used for education expenses this fall, when it was halted in the court system. Without the money, they had to make other arrangements.

“This is lifechanging for my daughter and her peers,” stated Katie Switzer, a parent who was among those supporting the scholarship in court. Switzer said individualized attention that a private school could provide will help with a speech disorder.

“It’s so exciting, it’s going to affect so many children in a positive way and give so many opportunities.”

Treasurer Riley Moore, whose office oversees the program, said it would be back up and running immediately.

“This is a victory for West Virginia families over the out-of-state trial lawyers and liberal activists who are trying to block educational freedom and school choice for the children of our state,” Moore stated. “The Hope Scholarship will provide families – particularly those with low incomes – the ability to pursue educational opportunities that best suit their children.”

The Supreme Court order today drew swift response, particularly from defenders of the program.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose office defended the program for the state, wrote on Twitter that he is thankful to the Supreme Court.

“WV kids deserve the best public schools and as many private sector options as possible,” Morrisey wrote. “This is a big win for educational freedom.”

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, expressed a similar sentiment.

“On behalf of the entire majority caucus, we thank the court for their careful consideration of a matter that affects so many West Virginia families. We believe that all children in West Virginia deserve the best education that meets their individual needs, and that parents should have the right to all educational options,” Blair stated.

The lawyers who argued that Hope Scholarship is unconstitutional expressed disappointment.

“Our clients and public school parents across the state are rightfully concerned about the negative impact this program—which lacks limits, standards, and accountability—will have on their constitutionally guaranteed public education right,” stated Tamerlin Godley of Public Funds Public Schools.

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