Christy Black, an advocacy specialist with the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council, with her daughter Gracie in 2018. (Photo by Craig Hudson / Charleston Gazette-Mail)
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Several years ago, West Virginia parent Christy Black searched for an inclusive private school for her daughter Gracie, who has Down syndrome, but to no avail. “There wasn’t any in my area or a few counties over, even, that would accept my daughter,” Black recalled. 

So it concerned her when the West Virginia Legislature in 2021 enacted the Hope Scholarship, a school voucher program provided to K-12 students that funds private school tuition and other qualifying expenses with taxpayer dollars. Some funding for public schools is being reallocated to private schools, part of a nationwide movement that’s long been promoted as “school choice.” 

“It’s not choice for everyone. It’s only choice for some,” said Black, an advocacy specialist with the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council. The council provides training and technical assistance to people with developmental disabilities and their families, also advocating for legislation and policy change that would benefit them. The group was not consulted during the creation of the Hope Scholarship, she said.  

School voucher programs such as West Virginia’s are on the rise. This year, seven states created new programs and 10 expanded existing ones. They’re billed as offering “school choice,” but research shows mixed results on their efficacy. In July, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, released a statement calling the state’s school voucher system “unsustainable” because projections for the fiscal year suggested 53% of new K-12 spending could go to 8% of students and cost taxpayers over $940 million.

A frequently overlooked aspect nationwide: Families using the money for an alternative to public school often must waive their rights to the free disability services provided in public schools. And they might not be able to find private schools that serve students with disabilities at all.

In West Virginia, students are eligible for the Hope Scholarship if they’re enrolled in public school currently or about to enter kindergarten, though a trigger in the legislation may open the scholarship to any K-12 student in the 2026-27 school year. 

Research on the first year of the program from the nonprofit West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy showed that the Hope Scholarship distributed more than $10 million in taxpayer funds, nearly $6 million of which went to non-public schools and the rest to education service providers such as tutors. Of that $6 million, roughly $310,000 went to schools outside of the state in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland and Virginia. And more than $1.7 million went to unaccredited private schools. 

Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. (Courtesy of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy)

West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy’s research also revealed that for every 100 students who leave a county public school district, that county loses funding equivalent to an average of nine positions, or 7.2 educators and 1.5 service personnel, some of whom are aides.   

“Families who kept their kids in public schools will have to pay more to keep receiving the same services that they received before because of the drain on public resources from the Hope scholarship,” said Kelly Allen, the executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonpartisan policy research organization that advocates for living wages and affordable health care. 

The loss of money to public schools may have a disproportionate impact on students with disabilities, said Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. He described a recent scenario in a classroom with two aides for 12 students with disabilities, each of whom needed individual attention. In his eyes, the classroom was understaffed. It will only get worse if aide positions are cut, he said. The special education population accounted for 20% of all students in the 2021-22 school year, up from 16% in 2014-15, according to West Virginia Department of Education data.   

Joe White, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. (Courtesy of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association)

“As more students get these vouchers, more jobs will be lost,” White said. 

The state Treasurer’s Office, which provides staffing for the program, disagrees that students with disabilities in public schools will feel the impact. West Virginia Department of Education policy requires that public schools meet minimum staffing ratios for special education classrooms. 

“So unless there was a reduction in the number of special education students or unless a county board of education was using a more generous staffing level for special education classrooms, the number of staff serving those students could not be reduced simply due to an overall reduction in student enrollment in the county leading to a loss in state aid funding,” Jared Hunt, a spokesperson for the West Virginia State Treasurer’s Office, said in an email. 

Hunt added that public schools are required to fulfill services listed in a student’s Individualized Education Program.

Asked whether there have been any reductions in aides for students with disabilities related to funding or enrollment shifts created by the program, the West Virginia Department of Education did not supply figures and referred questions to the Hope Scholarship Board. The board did not respond.

West Virginia, meanwhile, does not track the number of Hope Scholarship students with disabilities. 

Taniua Hardy, program director of Disability Rights of West Virginia, said that the nonprofit agency “does not have enough information to determine the potential effects that the Hope Scholarship may or may not have on students with disabilities.”

But for Black, with the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council, the potential impact of the school choice program is clear: “When you do pull the students out, then that’s less funding [for] the public school system,” she said. “And then who gets stuck in the public school system?” 

Allen, from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, is also concerned for the families of students with disabilities who waive their rights when they sign up for the Hope Scholarship. As the program’s parent handbook notes, caregivers must agree that they are releasing their public school system of the responsibility to provide a free and appropriate education. 

Black is glad that parents are at least informed that they will be signing away protections under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act when moving their students into private schools. A 2017 Government Accountability Office report showed that 83% of enrollees in school voucher programs for students with disabilities nationwide were not informed of the change in their rights, or were provided inaccurate information. 

While Black understands the appeal of school choice, she believes that there must be another way to improve the education students receive. 

“To fix West Virginia public school systems, we must hold schools accountable and make sure that all students get that free and appropriate public education,” Black said.

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Melissa Hellmann is an award-winning reporter who covers racial, gender and economic inequality. Prior...