Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Hope and public schools can coexist

The West Virginia Supreme Court now has before it the question of whether the Hope Scholarship violates the state Constitution.

The Legislature created the program to award state taxpayer dollars to students who choose to leave the public school system for private school. The money can also be used for other educational expenses, such as tutoring.

Approximately 3,000 students and their families were to receive $4,300 each this school year, but Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Joanna Tabit halted the program. Last Tuesday, the court heard both sides of the argument.

At the core of the dispute is Article XII, Section I of the state Constitution, which says, “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.”

Opponents argue the Hope Scholarship undermines public schools. Tamerlin Godley, attorney for Public Funds Public Schools, told the court, “The private school voucher law enacted in 2021 violates the West Virginia Constitution and threatens the rights of hundreds of thousands of West Virginia students.”

Supporters admit there will be a decrease in funds for public schools. However, state Solicitor General Lindsay See, arguing on behalf of the state, said opponents “have to show that the loss of funding is going to be enough that school districts cannot perform their constitutionally mandated duties.”

Both sides have a point.

The state school aid formula allocates state funding to county schools based on the number of students. So, Hope critics are correct when they say fewer students mean less money.

However, supporters have a more convincing legal argument for these reasons.

First, it is unclear how many students will take advantage of the Hope Scholarship over the years. The numbers may be nominal, which means the financial impact will also be miniscule.

Second, and more importantly, nothing about the legislation diminishes the constitutional requirement for our public schools. By definition, the Legislature is responsible for fully funding schools.

If the Hope Scholarship cuts into education funding too deeply, the Legislature would be required to put more money toward public education. If it failed to do so, advocates could file suit and force the state to comply.

That happened in 1982 when Judge Arthur Recht handed down the landmark decision declaring  the state’s system of funding schools caused inequities from county to county. The decision led to sweeping changes in how schools were funded, as well as the construction of new schools and curriculum changes.

The state Legislature’s creation of public charter schools and the Hope Scholarship, as well as increased desire by parents in homeschooling, are strong indicators that parents want more education options for their children.

Even with that increased interest, the vast majority of West Virginia children are, and will continue to be, educated in our public schools.

These two paths of education can coexist without one diminishing the other.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.