The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals has issued its decision on the Hope scholarship program. It’s a victory for advocates of private schools and homeschooling. It’s a setback for public schools, but within that setback is a challenge that may work for the best in the long run.
The decision itself isn’t new. The court issued a short order on Oct. 6 allowing nonpublic schools to receive voucher money. The decision issued Thursday explains the court’s reasoning.
The Hope scholarship program is open to all rising kindergartners whose parents divert them from public schools and to all older students already in public schools whose families choose to withdraw them. Parents may receive the roughly $4,300-per-student-per-year vouchers to spend on a wide range of private school and homeschool options.
Among the options covered by the vouchers are religious schools. The program doesn’t require private schools receiving voucher money to serve special education children, and those schools may exclude children based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The court voted 4-1 to uphold the Hope scholarship program. Justice Tim Armstead, a former speaker of the House of Delegates, wrote the opinion. Chief Justice John Hutchison dissented.
People challenging the law establishing the Hope scholarship pointed to Article XII, Section 1 of the state constitution. That section says, “the Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”
In his opinion, Armstead wrote, “While the ‘free schools’ clause requires the Legislature to provide a thorough and efficient system of free schools, it does not contain any restrictive language prohibiting the Legislature from enacting additional educational initiatives.”
He added, “The lack of any restrictive language is crucial because, as we discuss below, the Legislature has the authority to enact any law unless expressly forbidden to do so by our Constitution.”
As noted by HD Media reporter Ryan Quinn, West Virginia’s funding formula for county public school systems is largely based on how many students enroll in public schools in those counties. Vouchers that give families financial means to remove their children from public classrooms automatically reduce public education funding.
It may be a year or more before the effects of the Hope scholarship on public school funding are known. That gives local boards of education and local superintendents time to persuade parents that public schools are a better option for most children than private schools, charter schools or homeschooling.
Any such effort would require administrators and teachers to ask themselves the difficult questions of what can be improved and at what cost. It would be similar to the Japanese management practice of kaizen — continuous improvement. Kaizen involves all employees and sees improvement as a gradual and methodical process.
If parents use the Hope scholarship to remove their children from public schools, it’s because they see private schools or homeschooling as a better option. The Supreme Court’s decision is a reminder that people have options now. Public schools’ monopoly on public funding is weakening, so they must step up to demonstrate they are still the best choice for most parents.