More than 6,000 West Virginia students’ families have signed up for the Hope Scholarship savings account that allows them to take state money and apply it to tuition for private and homeschool.
State Treasurer Riley Moore, whose office administers the school choice program, spoke to Randy Yohe about the process of getting and using a Hope Scholarship and the growing numbers who want to opt out of the public school system.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Yohe: You’ve got your final application numbers in. This is really the first, full Hope Scholarship enrollment session that ended on May 15 with more than 6,000 applications. Was that number expected?
Moore: It kind of tracked where we thought it could be. We came in at 6,323 students. Most of that growth came from kindergartners, and that’s where we saw most of the growth from the numbers in the prior year. To be clear, these applications that we received include students that are currently Hope Scholarship students because they must reapply every year. The application deadline ended on May 15. That does not mean that you need to be approved by May 15. You just had to submit your application by May 15. My office has 45 days to approve that application. It generally never takes that long.
Yohe: Do you expect that number to continue to increase?
Moore: I think it will increase on the kindergarten side. I estimate it is probably between 1,500 and 2,000 students a year. We’ll have, in addition to that, maybe some others wanting to leave public school. We’re not seeing huge numbers of folks leaving public school since the initial tranche of that was in the year prior. Where you’re going to see a large number of people come into this program is 2026. That, by law, is when the program opens up to everybody. That means current private school children and current homeschooled children could then apply for Hope Scholarship in 2026. Currently, you have to either be a rising kindergartener, or in public school for 45 days to apply.
Yohe: If my figures are right, the more than 5,000 students that you believe will be eligible will cost the program more than $22 million. What is the Hope Scholarships budget?
Moore: It’s roughly around there. Because we have an estimate. The long term budget number on this, once it opens up in 2026, is probably $150 million a year.
Yohe: What’s the main reason that you see families applying for scholarships?
Moore: I think people want to exercise some educational options and choices. This is about educational freedom. It’s about individuals being able to utilize their tax dollars in the manner that they see fit to educate their children. Some people certainly want to remain and continue in their public school system and they like the school that they’re in. Some would like to send their kids to, say a christian school, a catholic school or what have you, some type of parochial education, and I think that’s great.
Yohe: I’ve noticed a number of church marquees that say apply for the Hope Scholarship, both in Huntington where I live and around the state.
Moore: Catholic schools like the ones in Huntington or Charleston, in Morgantown, Martinsburg, Wheeling, they’re everywhere. Using those Catholic schools as an example, there is a capacity, right? I mean, they can’t take unlimited amounts of children. So, I think that’s going to be kind of a natural backstop in terms of an explosion in growth. I do think it will probably spur growth, perhaps in this Catholic school system over time. You’re talking about having to build new buildings and things of that nature. But then also you have the ability to homeschool your children with these dollars as well. And we have seen some individuals decide to exercise that, and I think that you’ll have some more homeschool families apply for this in the future as well, particularly after 2026.
Yohe: We’ve also seen a statewide advertising campaign. I’m seeing a lot of billboards, and heard some advertising on the radio. I’m not sure if it’s in television media or newspapers, but talk about the impetus for your Hope Scholarship advertising campaign.
Moore: That is actually outside organizations that have been advertising this program. We’ve not done a tremendous amount of advertising in this office, just because we’ve seen outside groups doing it. As good stewards of the taxpayer dollars, we didn’t feel like we needed to double down on money that’s already being spent.
Yohe: There was a mention at the state Board of Education meeting last week that there was possibly some Hope Scholarship money that was used out of state.
Moore: That is actually permissible. The way the legislation was enacted allows Hope Scholarship funds to be used out of state, there is a provision that allows for that. Let’s say, if you live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, there’s not a lot of private school options there. There’s actually no Catholic High School in the entire Eastern Panhandle. So, West Virginia residents can send their children to out of state schools with Hope Scholarship money.
Yohe: The scholarship amount varies every year. For the 2023-24 school year, it will be $4,488.82. What do those funds basically go towards?
Moore: Generally, it’s going towards tuition, but it can also apply to school uniforms, books, tutors. We’ve talked about homeschool, so that entire curriculum, which would also involve materials and books and things of that nature. There are qualified expenses that are approved by the board around those that have scholarships. You can’t just spend it on whatever you want. These dollars go into a digital wallet, we don’t send out checks for people to just go ahead and buy whatever they think is permissible. There’s a safeguard measure in this, and this is audited internally as well.