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New bill would open up Hope Scholarships to non-public students

All non-public students in West Virginia schools would be eligible for the Hope Scholarship under a bill advanced by the House Education Committee.

West Virginia’s law is already one of the most wide open in the country because eligibility in most other states with similar programs is more narrowly defined. This bill would further broaden eligibility.

Right now, the scholarship is available only to students leaving the public school system or for kindergarten-aged students whose families are opting out of sending them to public schools in the first place.

This would open eligibility to all non-public K-12 students in a private or homeschool setting.

“So just to clarify,” said Delegate Wayne Clark, R-Jefferson, “anybody in public school right now is already eligible. All this is doing is taking everybody who is not eligible, your homeschoolers and your private schoolers.”

Committee members passed out HB 2619, amending Hope Scholarship eligibility, on Wednesday afternoon. It now goes to the House Finance Committee.

A fiscal note from the state Department of Education estimates the cost of administering the program for all non-public school children could be $160 million.

“This is a maximum cost estimate because the WVDE does not have sufficient data to estimate the number of nonpublic students who may choose to participate in the program once participation is expanded,” the department stated.

So, to estimate the total cost to the state, the education department used current available homeschool and private school enrollment data to determine the total number of students who could become eligible.

Current data shows there are about 11,753 students in nonpublic or private schools and 22,228 students in a homeschool setting. That adds up to 33,981 students who could become eligible for the program next year.

Under the current law, the Hope Scholarship wouldn’t expand to all children until summer 2026 at the earliest. So, passage of this bill would accelerate that by about three years.

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. There’s a 45-day minimum enrollment period in public schools to become eligible.

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.

The scholarship amount varies each school year. The statewide average net state aid per pupil for the 2022-23 fiscal year is $4,725.07.

So, the Department of Education multiplied $4,725 times the 33,981 students who could become eligible to get the $160 million figure.