This would give families who withdraw their children from public schools a sum currently estimated at $ 4,600 per student per year for private and home education expenses.
The money could be spent on secular or religious education. When Republican lawmakers created the program this year, school choice advocates called it the nation’s largest non-public school voucher program.
Earlier this month there was a meeting on the program at the Cross Lanes Bible Church. Cross Lanes Christian School is a ministry of this church.
Among the topics of the evening: How parents can try to get this money when they have already placed their children in a private school or at home. The strategy: temporarily enroll children in public school to qualify them, then withdraw them.
The approach could engage parents using two ‘school choice’ programs created by lawmakers since 2019: open enrollment among public school systems and these vouchers. And that could involve taking advantage of the fact that public schools do not fully regulate their online education offerings.
The Hope Scholarship Act, House Bill 2013, says a student need only attend a public school “full-time” for 45 days before their parents become eligible to apply for the voucher. The Hope Scholarship Board then has up to 45 additional days, during which the child must remain in public school, to approve or deny the application.
The law does not say that online learning cannot count as attending a public school.
One of the presenters for the Cross Lanes meeting was Jered Green, administrative pastor at Teays Valley Baptist Church, who also hosted a meeting. He declined this week to say how many similar meetings have taken place, but said there had been none since the November 8 meeting at Cross Lanes and there would be no more.
“Everything I said was not an official position from Teays Valley Baptist Church,” Green said. He declined to answer further questions.
Speaking at the Cross Lanes reunion, Jessica Woofter, parent at Cross Lanes Christian School, recounted calling public school systems and asking about e-learning and the Hope Scholarship requirements.
But, Woofter said, county after county, the person on the other end of the phone was unaware of the voucher program.
“So all I was doing was pretty much just crushing all day and just causing, like, mass confusion,” Woofter said. “So we kind of went back to the drawing board and I started reminding me of all these counties like, ‘I’m a mom, just interested in virtual learning, and can you tell me about the program. ? ‘ “
“So all of those people you see for the county who are going to be your point of contact, I didn’t mention the Hope scholarship to them,” she said, referring to her PowerPoint presentation. “Now, I would never tell you to be dishonest every time you call. You are more than welcome to mention the Hope Scholarship to them, just know that they probably won’t know what you are talking about.
Later in his presentation, Woofter joked about it. She said she called the Kanawha County School System.
“I said, ‘So if I sign up for your virtual program, and say we do virtual learning for, I don’t know, like 45 days,” “she said of a tone, causing laughter among the benches. “No, I didn’t say that. I said, “Let’s say we do virtual learning and I said, you know after two or three months it’s just not suitable for our family, my kid is not thriving in it. , it just doesn’t work. Can I remove my child from virtual learning at any time during the semester and return them to a traditional classroom? And she said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, “Can I take them out at any time and put them back to school at home?” And she said, ‘Yes.’ I said, “Can I take them out at any time and hand them over to the private school?” And she said ‘Yes’.
After a person on the benches expressed concern over their child’s loss of a private school place as she deregistered to meet the 45-day public school enrollment requirement, Woofter said suggested talking to the administrator of his private school about “double enrollment”.
“Are you going to allow me to stay here now, also try to go virtual at your own pace?” Woofter suggested asking. “Or, if I have to retire to meet the 45-day requirement in person, do I still have a spot here in August?” “
“Double enrollment” in a private school and a public school is not mentioned in the law.
The answers were not clear on how it would work. Woofter admitted that she didn’t know how much work would be a private school and a public school online simultaneously. Nor could she answer another question about how “double enrollment” would affect transcripts showing grades or credits achieved.
“We are working on a plan,” said Edward Riley, administrator of Cross Lanes Christian School, when a member of the public asked if his school would allow “double enrollment.”
Contacted by the Gazette-Mail this week, Riley said the meeting was not intended to be public.
“You weren’t supposed to be at a meeting involving our families,” he told a reporter.
He said “we never had a plan” and “we haven’t made a decision on that yet.”
“We’re not going to do anything that breaks the rules, the law, we’re not going to do anything to manipulate,” Riley said. He noted that the legislative rules that fleshed out the program had not yet been revealed.
“I informed our parents that they should just wait and see,” he said. “Basically I scolded them, they just need to be patient.”
At the meeting, Woofter reviewed the public e-learning offerings of a few counties. She mentioned enrollment ceilings in one and a county residency requirement in another.
Online education lobbyist Ben Beakes was in attendance, seated next to delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha. Beakes said his children frequented Cross Lanes Christian.
Beakes spoke to say lawmakers have passed “open listing” laws. These help provide families with a choice of school among public schools, by making it easier to send their children to public schools in counties where they do not live.
Now, by West Virginia law, the public school system in your home county cannot prevent you from sending your children, in person or virtually, to another county public school system.
Only the county education council that takes in your children can deny them access – and only, as the law says, “due to lack of capacity at school level” or not filling out a form correctly. . State Board of Education policy says that “the lack of capacity at the school level” means the host county should either hire more employees or pay them more.
Beakes also noted that state funding for public schools is tied to enrollment.
“Which receiving superintendent will not want to take more money if a student from Kanawha County wants to go to Putnam County?” ” he said.
“Upshur County is doing this right now, and they’ve enrolled 500 students from 30 different counties into their virtual program,” Beakes said. “They use Stride, the same company as Putnam County.”
Stacy Marteney, virtual learning coordinator for the Upshur public school system, told The Gazette-Mail that there were 477 students, from around 20 counties, enrolled in the Upshur virtual program this semester.
Marteney said that Upshur, which does not use its own teachers for the virtual program, does not set its own limit on the number of students who can enroll.
“That’s exactly what Stride would have, based on how many students they could serve,” she said.
Stride is a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
A spokesperson for Stride wrote in an email that “We are working with the district to follow the policies set by their leaders and the state Department of Education. As the county has said, at this time, no cap has been set. “
Marteney said she didn’t know of any family using the virtual Upshur program just to qualify for the Hope scholarship.
Enrollment at Upshur from last fall to this fall jumped from around 250 students to 3,950, according to the State Department of Education website. This was the first increase in enrollment at Upshur since an increase of five students in 2018, and its highest total enrollment since at least 2014.
Beakes lobbies for Stride, although he didn’t mention it during the Cross Lanes reunion.
“It’s because I wasn’t there for them,” Beakes told The Gazette-Mail. “I was there to understand what the school was presenting to my children and the other children in that school, and I was concerned about some information because all the information, not all the facts, was being presented. And that’s why I informed my fellow parents about these problems. “
Beakes, at the end of the meeting, urged caution and patience.
“I’m afraid that if we go too fast, for us, we’re going to hurt our school,” he told the audience.
Families do not have to use the 45-day registration loophole for children who have not yet entered kindergarten. They can receive the vouchers for newly-enrolled children and continue to receive them as the children age, without ever having to enroll them in public schools, in person or virtually.
And all workarounds could be made moot in five years.
The law has a trigger that will automatically activate if participation in the Hope Scholarship does not exceed 5% of enrollment in state public schools in the first two years. If so, then from July 2026 the parents of all current non-public schoolchildren will be able to get the vouchers.
So, the more families that attempt this workaround, the more likely it is that participation will exceed 5% of public school enrollment, meaning the trigger will not be fired and expectant parents may have to. be continue to rely on the loophole.
An audience member present at the meeting said he was concerned that parents trying the workaround would ‘decimate’ athletics at Cross Lanes Christian and threaten the school financially while students are not enrolled. . He also noted that an impending trial injunction could suspend the program.
“I don’t think you have any idea how many people are really going to come back,” he said.