FILE - School choice, student, classroom

(The Center Square) – A circuit court judge is blocking West Virginia from implementing a school choice program intended to provide more options for parents and students, but Attorney General Patrick Morrissey plans to appeal the ruling.

The Hope Scholarship Fund would set up education savings accounts, which would allow parents to use public money to send their children to private schools or to support the costs of homeschooling. It would be funded by diverting money that would otherwise have been spent to send that child to a public school. Parents whose students would be accepted into the program could receive up to $4,600 per year through vouchers.

A group called Public Funds Public Schools sued the state on behalf of some parents, arguing the program violates the state constitution’s Education Clause: “The Legislature shall provide, by general law, for a thorough and efficient system of free schools.” They argued that the voucher program would divert millions of dollars from the public education system, which they say would prevent the state from living up to its constitutional obligations.

Judge Joanna Tabit of the Circuit Court of Kanawha County agreed with their arguments.

“In my view, the Legislature has violated its constitutional level obligations regarding public education and funding by enacting House Bill 2013 for the Hope scholarship fund,” Tabit said when explaining her ruling.

Tamerlin Godley, the co-founder of PFPS and lead lawyer for the parents, said in a statement that the ruling protects students and upholds the state constitution.

“The judge clearly understood that the West Virginia Constitution does not allow for this voucher program,” Godley said. “Stopping the voucher program was absolutely essential to protect the state’s students and their public schools.”

Attorney General Patrick Morrissey, who defended the state’s position in the case, expressed disappointment in the ruling and vowed to file for an appeal.

“I am disappointed with this ruling,” Morrissey said. “We will appeal because this is an important law that provides parents greater freedom to choose how they educate their children. Our kids deserve the best educational options – we will fight for our kids and the hard working families of our state to retain this law and uphold its constitutionality.”

Gov. Jim Justice signed the General Assembly-passed Hope Scholarship Fund into law in 2021, but the program has been tied up in the courts ever since. To implement the program, the state will either need to win an appeal or restructure the legislation.