Editorials, Opinion

Court rightly stops Hope Scholarship

A week ago, Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit ruled, correctly, the Hope Scholarship violates the West Virginia Constitution.

Judge Tabit said, “The Hope Scholarship Program in my view undermines the free education system by requiring the Department of Education to take funds appropriated by the Legislature [for public education] and transferring them to the Hope Scholarship Fund, which is then tasked for dispersing funds for private education.”

And that was one aspect — and arguably the strongest — of the argument made by the plaintiffs suing to stop the program: The state’s constitution requires West Virginia to provide a system of free schools, and funds dedicated for these free schools cannot be used for anything else; therefore, using funds from public schools to subsidize private schools violates the Constitution.

Fortunately, Judge Tabit also saw the same flaws in the Hope Scholarship that concerned parents — and even the state superintendent — did. For now, the program is stalled and unenforceable, but there are already indications that the case will go to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

Before Judge Tabit’s injunction, more than 3,000 students had been awarded the Hope Scholarship, which would give each of them almost $4,300 to use toward private school tuition, private tutoring or other educational services.

We are sympathetic to the plight of those 3,000 families now caught in limbo. We can certainly understand the frustration at seeing the funding they built their fall plans on go poof. So while we stand by our assertion that the Hope Scholarship is a detriment to West Virginia’s educational system, we don’t believe these families deserve to be left in the lurch.

We propose, then, that the current Hope Scholarship recipients receive the money they were promised, not from the Department of Education, but from the $1.3 billion surplus Gov. Justice has spent the last week touting.

To give $4,300 to each of the current Hope Scholars would cost around $13 million, or about 1% of the surplus. This would allow these families to continue with their children’s educational plans for the fall. However, no new applicants should be approved, and funding should not be promised for future years.

This would also give the Legislature a year to find an alternative revenue stream to fund the Hope Scholarship, if the state is determined to keep the program going. What the state cannot do — and should not keep fighting to do — is divert funds from public education to subsidize private schools.

We are not against school choice on principle: Not every school environment is the best fit for every child. However, facilitating school choice should not — must not — come at the expense of defunding brick-and-mortar public schools.

West Virginia’s public education system will never improve if legislators continue to restrict and divert moneys from public schools. Facilities can’t be repaired, replaced or improved without funding. Quality teachers can’t be recruited and retained without competitive wages. Educational materials and extracurricular activities can’t be acquired and maintained without money.

For those seeking educational opportunity in private or charter schools, scholarships and financial assistance should be offered, both from the specific facility and maybe from the state. But if the state wants to offer such assistance, it cannot take money from public schools to do so.