Editorials, Opinion

Moore needs to hold his horses on Hope expansion

West Virginia Treasurer Riley Moore is pushing to quickly grow the Hope Scholarship. He’s asking for a year-round application period, which currently only runs March 1 to May 15, and for scholarship funds to be dispersed quarterly instead of twice a year. He’s also advocating for the Hope Scholarship to be available to all West Virginia students. Right now, only kids leaving the public school system or just entering kindergarten are eligible, but existing legislation contains the option to expand the scholarship to current private and home-schooled students as well by 2026.

Moore needs to hold his horses. He’s rushing headlong into a multi-million-dollar commitment for taxpayers without doing a full accounting of where the money is going — or has gone.

As the West Virginia Education Association said, the data for the first full year of the Hope Scholarship is just now coming in, and it needs to be carefully analyzed before making any significant changes. We’re talking about tax dollars here, and we need a careful accounting of how the money has been used before we start throwing even more money at the program.

We’ve always had our concerns about the Hope Scholarship, and the preliminary numbers from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy indicate some worrying trends.

Of the roughly $10 million spent on the program for the 2022-23 school year, approximately $6 million was spent on nonpublic schools and the remainder on education service providers, which includes everything from academic tutoring to private music lessons to film school (based in Arizona) to the Oglebay zoo to the West Virginia Golf Association — and lots of religiously affiliated groups and schools.

In its initial analysis, CBP found that almost $312,000 went to out-of-state schools, including ones in Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania. (The Hope Scholarship website also lists a school in Ventura, Calif., among its approved partners.)

CBP wasn’t able to get the amount of money spent on out-of-state service providers (such as tutoring services), but it did determine that 57% of the ones listed are outside West Virginia. We can tell you from reviewing that list that service providers receiving West Virginians’ tax dollars are as far flung as Arizona, Oregon, Vermont, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Texas, among others.  Oh, and the Hope Scholarship’s governing board just agreed to reimburse families for “off-the-shelf” curriculum packages, so there goes more money out of state.

What CBP was able to determine was that $1.7 million of Hope Scholarship funds were spent on non-accredited schools. According to the West Virginia Department of Education, in registered but non-accredited schools: “Personnel … are not required to have any type of professional licensure or education credentials,” and schools are “required to provide a curriculum, which will enable students to become literate citizens and must provide standardized testing scores that are at or above the fortieth percentile” (i.e., at or better than “slightly below average”). However, “there are no other … requirements for graduation.” In Mon and Preston counties, non-accredited schools that received Hope Scholarship funds are Trinity Christian School, Morgantown Christian Academy, Covenant Christian School and Laurel Academy.

Money that should be funding real schools, with real teachers, has instead gone to for-profit, religious-based organizations and to out-of-state schools and programs. Moore needs to do a far more careful accounting of the Hope Scholarship and its expenditures to make sure money is staying in-state and going to accredited schools before he opens the tap of taxpayer money even further.