Hope reigns supreme in West Virginia as state’s highest court upholds landmark education choice program

A West Virginia Supreme Court ruling Tuesday that will allow the state’s Hope Scholarship to move forward will make it possible for families like Katie Switzer’s to choose the best education options for their children.

Two days after hearing oral arguments, West Virginia’s highest court has dissolved an injunction against the state’s Hope Scholarship program. The move clears the way for the education choice program to resume after a lower court halted it weeks before schools were to reopen, leaving 3,000 families scrambling to find alternatives.

“This is a great day for West Virginia students, a great day for West Virginia families, and a great day for West Virginia’s public education system,” Andrew Bambrick of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy said in a video on the nonprofit’s Facebook page.

Bambrick pledged that the organization, which supported the program, would continue to serve as a resource to families.

The ruling followed arguments made Tuesday by attorneys representing the state, which was appealing a ruling that a lower court issued in July that found the program unconstitutional and ordered it to stop immediately. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued an order late Tuesday and said a more detailed opinion would be published later.

“After careful consideration of all filings, the record on appeal, and the oral arguments presented by the parties, the Court is of the opinion to, and does, dissolve the injunctive relief and reverse the order of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County entered on July 22, 2022,” the order said.

The Hope Scholarship was being challenged over whether it violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education system. The state Legislature passed legislation establishing the scholarship in 2021.

Families can use the education savings accounts for a range of expenses such as homeschooling, private school tuition, online learning, after-school or summer-learning programs or educational therapies.

West Virginia’s law is one of the most expansive in the country because eligibility in most other states with similar programs is more limited to certain groups, such as students with special needs.

The scholarship amount varies each school year. For the 2022-23 year, that amount was to be about $4,300.

State and national supporters of the program celebrated late Tuesday afternoon.

“We are thrilled for every family in West Virginia who now has access to the opportunities that education freedom brings,” said Tommy Schultz, CEO of the American Federation for Children, a national education choice advocacy group. “With this ruling, yet another court has confirmed that school choice is constitutional, and lawmakers in every state should look to follow the example of courageous West Virginia legislators who chose to fund students, not systems.”

Attorneys for the Institute for Justice, which represented two families as intervenors in the case, called the challenge “meritless” and praised the high court’s decision.

“Parents are demanding school choice in West Virginia, and won’t have to wait much longer,” said IJ Attorney Joshua House. “Parents like Katie (Switzer) and Jennifer (Compton) fought to defend the Hope Scholarship because education is not one-size-fits-all. Every family should be able to choose the school that best fits the needs of their children.”

One of Switzer’s children has a speech disorder that she believes would benefit from the individualized attention that a private school could provide.

“This is lifechanging for my daughter and her peers,” she said. “It’s so exciting, it’s going to affect so many children in a positive way and give so many opportunities.”

Jamie Buckland, a homeschool mom of four and an advocate and administrator for West Virginia Families United for Education, posted a message on the group’s Facebook page that said, “We got it! Hope has been upheld.”

She said that “as someone born and raised in this state, it’s extremely satisfying for the nation to recognize what I have always known. We cannot be underestimated. Today is a win for our families … Buckle up! I’m ready to get to work.”