West Virginia Bans Failed Microschool from Receiving State Funds

West Virginia authorities have permanently excluded a failed microschool, characterized by one parent as a “glorified babysitter,” from participating in the state’s Hope Scholarship private school choice initiative.

The Hope Scholarship Board, in a recent ruling, also instructed the state Treasurer Riley Moore’s office, responsible for managing the program, to refer their findings to the state auditor for potential criminal prosecution.

The Hope Scholarship board has directed the West Virginia State Treasurer Riley Moore’s team to hand over their investigation of Hive Learning Academy to a state auditor. (West Virginia State Treasury)

The 74 initially reported in March that Hive Learning Academy, an educational startup hosted in a rented residence, was implicated in a state probe for scholarship infractions. An alarmed parent mentioned that the school suddenly halted services for his son’s age group after only three days, without any refund indication and evasive responses. Another parent indicated the absence of designated meal times, with students having to fetch their lunches from the fridge. Parents reported these issues to authorities, but Kaela Zimmerman, the homeschooling parent who founded the program, attributed some responsibility to the state.

“I feel like they are trying to make an example out of us to set a precedent even though the system truly failed us last year,” she expressed to The 74. Zimmerman added that she no longer intends to reopen the program. “It was a learning process for everyone. I wish they were willing to admit that and understand that we all did the best we could with the resources we had at the time.”

Despite serving only eight students in Martinsburg, the school’s controversy sparked a broader national debate on the competence of individuals initiating schools with public funds. Critics of programs like education savings accounts highlighted insufficient oversight and the detrimental impact on students when programs abruptly cease. Conversely, proponents of school choice used the school’s closure to advocate for market-oriented approaches, citing the case in West Virginia as a success.

“This marks a pivotal moment in the discussion on accountability within education savings accounts,” remarked Michael Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, during a conference session in April. He emphasized the importance of addressing challenges and implementing solutions to enhance such programs.

Don Soifer, leading the National Microschooling Center, pointed out the lack of clear guidance following West Virginia’s legislative authorization for families to utilize ESA funds at microschools. He highlighted the state’s slow response to the emerging microschooling trend and the subsequent efforts to enhance awareness and regulations for such programs.

“West Virginia simply hadn’t anticipated a microschooling movement, and government reaction was sluggish,” Soifer acknowledged. Though the initial phase was challenging, he noted significant improvements in the state’s handling of small programs.

‘Everything was returned’

Initiating the Hive venture posed greater risks than Zimmerman had anticipated. Opening the program with a business partner last August, they utilized personal funds for furniture and supplies due to inadequate startup resources. Parents quickly noticed red flags, such as an erratic schedule and minimal academic evidence during school visits.

Ultimately, Zimmerman repaid over $15,000 to the state and expressed bewilderment at potential criminal charges suggested by officials.

“Everything was returned that needed to be returned,” she stated. “No one from the Hope board has reached out to me a single time since they received our refunds.”

Jared Hunt, spokesperson for the treasurer’s office, confirmed the notification of official measures to Zimmerman, including appeal options, yet refrained from further inquiries due to the ongoing investigation.

This incident raises additional questions for parents and entrepreneurs considering microschool ventures, as highlighted by Horn. The diverse landscape of microschools and their founders necessitates a clearer understanding of the state’s role, parental involvement, and market dynamics in educational choices.

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