Leaders discuss how to apply Hope Scholarship to new microschools and learning pods

The board overseeing implementation of the Hope Scholarship for students leaving the public school system is considering how the program might be applied to students in newly-established educational options.

One is microschools, a format authorized this past year by the Legislature, sort of straddles what a public school, private school or homeschool would do. The goal is a more personalized education but in a group format, and the school charges tuition for the students who enroll.

The other is learning pods, another alternative defined as a voluntary association of parents choosing to group their children together to participate in their elementary or secondary academic studies.

The Hope Scholarship Board’s subcommittee on legislative rules started discussions on Friday about how to apply the program to the two new educational options.

There’s no final outcome yet. The subcommittee makes recommendations to the full board, which then could recommend a policy to the Legislature.

The Legislature passed and the governor then signed a bill establishing the Hope Scholarships in 2021. The program is set up to 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.

The subcommittee has recommended making microschools eligible for Hope Scholarship funds to be used.

But because of the difference in structure, it’s not as clear how Hope Scholarship funds could apply to learning pods, which are governed by parents. Board members made a point that the individual families with students participating in a learning pod still could use Hope Scholarship for other approved educational needs, such as tutoring programs.

Amy Willard, the state’s deputy treasurer for savings programs, said legislators mean for the Hope Scholarship to apply to microschools. “Based on conversation with legislative leadership, it was their intent that families be able to utilize the Hope Scholarship funds to pay tuition at a microschool,” Willard told the subcommittee.

But the policies governing the program would have to be changed because the current definition of microschools specifically says they are not exactly private. “Microschools do not currently fall under any of the qualified expenditures outlined in the Hope Scholarship Act or the corresponding legislative rules adopted by the board,” Willard said.

The solution isn’t as direct for learning pods.

Sarah Canterbury, general counsel for the Treasurer’s Office, said the complication there is the loose structure of the pods.

“There’s really nothing preventing these students, just like any other student who’s exempt from public education enrollment, from participating as an individualized learner,” Canterbury said.

But the pods essentially represent an association of parents, while the law governing the Hope Scholarship explicitly states that parents cannot directly receive Hope funds.

“Students who choose to participate in learning pods can already be Hope students; they would just be the individualized learners” and use the scholarship for other qualified expenses, Canterbury said.

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