School Choice

School Choice Is Coming to Union Stronghold West Virginia

School closures are the best thing to happen to educational choice.

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On March 18, the West Virginia Senate passed a landmark education bill to create the nation's largest education savings account (ESA) program, which would let parents withdraw their children from public schools and allow them to take the funds that would have been spent by the state and spend them on private school tuition, tutoring, or homeschooling expenses. The bill, which will most likely be signed by Gov. Jim Justice (R) later this week, would be a huge victory for school choice proponents and families who have become disillusioned with their residentially assigned public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The program is required to be operational by no later than July 1, 2022 and is estimated to have an initial enrollment of 5,118 students receiving $4,600 each. For the first few years the program will only be available to students currently in public schools, but the bill will expand eligibility to current homeschool and private school students in 2026 if the cap on 5 percent of statewide public-school enrollment is not met.

"Simply put, today is a proud day for West Virginia and will provide hope for generations of children in our state," said Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the state's libertarian-leaning Cardinal Institute, to the radio station WV MetroNews. 

Just a few years ago, the idea that a state like West Virginia could adopt such bold school choice reform would have sounded like a pipe dream. The state has a long political history of strong labor unions and, before 2019, was one of a small handful of states that still didn't allow for public charter schools. But the pandemic has changed everything: Widespread frustration with virtual learning and slow school reopenings has prompted lawmakers across the nation to introduce bills to fund students instead of institutions.

According to tracking from the Education Freedom Institute, a think tank that promotes school choice, legislators in 28 other states have introduced laws to create or expand programs like ESAs, tax credit scholarships, or school vouchers this year. This includes some states which already have robust school choice landscapes like Arizona and Indiana, but also newly interested ones like Washington and Idaho

Not all these bills will become law, of course. But some states have already passed significant reforms: South Dakota's Republican governor, Kristi Noem, signed a bill expanding eligibility for the state's tax-credit scholarship program on March 18 and about a dozen other states—including New Hampshire, Georgia, and Missouri—have successfully moved school choice bills through committees and state legislative chambers over the past month.

As of March 23, legislators in 29 states have introduced bills to create or expand educational choice this year.

To better understand why demand for school choice is surging, take a look at February public opinion poll results gathered by EdChoice and Morning Consult. Of all American adults, only 48 percent approve or somewhat approve of how their state governors have influenced school reopening decisions and only 44 percent approve or somewhat approve of how local teachers unions have influenced reopening decisions. Also, parents with kids who are in private school or homeschooled feel more positively about their children's social and academic progress than public school parents do.

These sentiments are further confirmed by the decisions families have made during the pandemic. Public school enrollment dropped in at least 33 states over the last year as families switched to private schools since all but 5 percent of them were open for in-person learning last fall. Meanwhile, 62 percent of public school students began the school year with only virtual instruction. Additionally, homeschooling rates doubled from 5.4 percent to 11.1 percent nationwide during the pandemic, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data. Unsurprisingly, this substantial shift between schooling sectors has led more parents to demand power over the education dollars traditionally controlled by districts.

Beyond the sheer volume of legislation, what's unique about this moment for education reform is how policymakers are advancing programs that give families more flexibility over funds. Of the 29 states introducing at least one choice bill, 23 sponsored an ESA bill—a more flexible option compared to a tax-credit scholarship or voucher. In the past, school choice initiatives were largely focused on helping more students afford private schooling. But now because of the organic growth of learning pods, micro-schools, and hybrid schooling models during the pandemic, legislators recognize that there's more to school choice than just helping kids go from public school to private; families also want the freedom to customize their child's learning and depart from traditional classrooms altogether.

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  1. While the response to covid shutdowns is partly responsible for the popularity of alternative educational methods, the force-feeding of CRT to school kids is a strong incentive to get kids out of the hands of these ideologues.

    1. I’d like to think that the public school establishment is smart enough not to try pushing the CRT crap in WV. That’s what I would like to think.

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  2. Hope that this isn’t considered a tax break by DOE.

  3. I have stopped being amazed by politicians who can’t see past the end of their nose, always doing things which everyone and their dog knows will backfire, such as the step-by-step throwing away the filibuster in the Senate. But sometimes they do something so crazy, it makes me wonder what they discuss in their back rooms.

    Teacher union behavior is the most recent. They demanded priority in vaccinations, and then still refuse to go back to in-class instruction unless all the kids are vaccinated too. Then they demand bailout money, when they have not been laid off or fired.

    Have they really no clues about the optics, about how they are sales people of the century for home schooling and charter schools?

    I really don’t understand them, how they can be so out of touch with reality.

    1. Well, they got the vaccine priority,
      they got the money,
      they still don’t have to go to work,
      they haven’t lost any pension credits for not working for a year,
      So how far out of touch are they, really?
      The strategy is working. The optics don’t matter because they don’t have to deal with taxpayers, just compliant politicians.

      1. They have plenty of problems. The public with kids in school is fed up enough to double the number of home and charter school kids, and all this was happening while the teacher unions were still demanding less work and more pay and refusing to teach in person and wanting huge bailouts.

        Sure they will get it now, but they will lose a lot of jobs soon, and they have spent whatever political capitol they had accumulated, leaving their Congressional Cronies with little to defend them with.

        The filibusters I could understand; retaliation was some unknown number of years in the future. This, I do not, because the retaliation was happening while they were demanding more of the perks which created the backlash. That is what baffles me.

        1. Yeah, I don’t think these people thought through the long-term consequences of their obstinacy. They figured parents would just suck it up and deal with it indefinitely until teachers felt good and ready to come back into the classroom. Too many teachers got WAY too comfortable rolling out of bed at 8 am, posting the daily lesson plan, and then fucking around the house all day with little else to do but answer emails.

          I warned one particularly clueless principal on another website that parents were going to remember how childish and tunnel-visioned he and his school’s teachers were acting about this, the next time they came begging to the voters for an increase in the mill levy. He still didn’t get it, and I don’t expect him to, because they’ve already made up their mind that any parent complaining about this is a “bad parent.”

  4. Perhaps a bit more detail on that 5% cap would be helpful.
    You know, real journalism?

    If that is a cap on citizens entering the program, it should be in the article, as a major flaw. Equal rights and all that jazz, don’t you know?

    1. +1 I was wondering that, too. Should we expect to see a flood of homeschoolers returning to public school shortly before the deadline—so that they can then drop out and get their funds as “public schoolers?”

  5. Hmmm. A union ignoring the effects of outside competition. Where has this happened before? Auto industry, steel industry, etc.

  6. The actions of the Teacher’s unions during the lockdown appear to have been the final push needed to make school choice a reality. Those teachers are being taught a real lesson.

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