West Virginia activist sees education choice as key to better quality of life

West Virginia education choice advocates, including students, rally annually during National School Choice Week.

“Almost every other state had some mix of charters, tax credits, scholarships, or education savings accounts, but not West Virginia, so it struck me as yet another thing that was unavailable to my fellow West Virginians. When the lack of choice was coupled with troubling education outcomes, it became a natural path for me and Cardinal to take – it became our raison d’etre.”  — Garrett Ballengee

Garrett Ballengee

Garrett Ballengee is the executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a nonprofit education choice champion dedicated to researching, developing and communicating effective, free market economic public policies for West Virginia, whose legislature this year passed the nation’s broadest education savings account program.

A native of the Mountain State, Ballengee graduated summa cum laude in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in finance from West Virginia University, Honors College. He received his master’s degree in financial economics from Ohio University in 2011. Ballengee was a senior policy and research analyst in the Washington, D.C., area for five years before returning to West Virginia to lead the Cardinal Institute. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Tell me a little about yourself and your own K-12 education. Did you personally benefit from education choice? If so, how? If not, what was your education situation like, and how could it have been better? 

A. Like most West Virginians, I attended public school for the entirety of my K-12 education. Overall, it was a good experience, a few bumps here and there (I could be something of a handful), but I really have few complaints looking back. I was blessed with good teachers, a good learning environment, and had parents who cared about my education. We had a few private schools in my town, Catholic and Montessori, but, as far as I know, that was never something my parents considered.

Q. Who or what influenced you to become an education choice advocate? 

A. This may sound a bit over the top, but I’ve always been something of a bleeding heart with a strong sense of justice, so, to me, the lack of options for West Virginians really, really bothered me, especially when I saw what millions of kids across the country had when it came to education choice.

Almost every other state had some mix of charters, tax credits, scholarships, or education savings accounts but not West Virginia, so it struck me as yet another thing that was unavailable to my fellow West Virginians. When the lack of choice was coupled with troubling education outcomes, it became a natural path for me and Cardinal to take – it became our raison d’etre.

Q. What has been the state of education in West Virginia up until now? 

A. I have always referred to the education landscape in West Virginia as something of a desert. Unless your parents could afford to send you to private school, you were stuck in the school for which you were zoned. Until 2019, charters were not allowed, and until 2021, there were no forms of private school choice.

West Virginia has traditionally had very, very low NAEP scores, and very low education attainment rates, some of which were dictated by the state’s economic mix, but still inexcusable. West Virginia’s education system has always been pretty well funded, right around the national average, and is among the most generous when K-12 spending figures in the average incomes of the taxpayers, but it has always had terrible outcomes.  

Q. Why was education choice needed? 

A. It is for all students and families, regardless of a family’s ability to pay, to have access to education options. We value choice in pretty much all other aspects of our lives, but we neglected to realize that in the K-12 education system in West Virginia.

It really doesn’t matter if a school is among the best in the country with 90% of graduates going to MIT, the fact is that even the finest schools will not work well for every kid. West Virginia needed to strive for an education system that offers options as unique as students, and there is only one way to cultivate those options: choice.

Q. What was the biggest obstacle to getting education choice passed and how long did it ultimately take?

A. For several reasons, it was extremely difficult to get education choice measures passed, some of which are obvious like the political influence of teachers’ unions, while others, like lack of awareness of the benefits of choice, weren’t so obvious in the beginning. The efforts to introduce choice in West Virginia really started in earnest back in 2015-16, when Cardinal reached out to Jonathan Butcher (of the Heritage Foundation) to see if he would be willing to write a research paper on a newfangled concept known as education savings accounts, and to the benefit of future generations in West Virginia, Jonathan agreed.

Cardinal took Jonathan’s research and used it as a platform for op-eds, interviews, testimony, spin-off research, town halls, etc., and Cardinal simply began explaining to benefits of choice across the state. Over the years, an effective coalition around choice began to build, and the marriage of West Virginia and education freedom became close to an inevitability — we were relentless. To paraphrase economist Milton Friedman, it was an idea whose time had come. 

Q. Why did the West Virginia Legislature choose the education savings account model over the traditional scholarship model? 

A. They felt ESAs offered the most benefits with the least number of drawbacks to West Virginia’s children and families. ESAs offered the most flexibility to students of any school choice program and was the latest innovation in the realm of education choice, plus you could educate the same child for much fewer taxpayer dollars in an ESA program than what you could in the traditional school setting.

ESAs were a win for children, families, and taxpayers – who wouldn’t love that? Though it played a much smaller role, West Virginia’s relatively small economy and lack of wealth didn’t provide the economic base required for the scholarship model to work as well as it does in other states.

Q. When will the new law take effect, and how many students do you anticipate taking advantage of the program? 

A. The Hope Scholarship (West Virginia’s ESA program) begins taking applications in March 2022, with parents able to use the funding for the 2022-23 school year. Approximately 93% of all students in West Virginia will be eligible for 100% of the state funding per pupil which currently equals around $4,600.

It is difficult to estimate how many kids will use the program as the state has never had any school choice programs before, but groups like Cardinal are ensuring that as many families as possible are aware of the Hope Scholarship program. We are also doing our best to recruit education vendors to West Virginia and ensure that current schools in the state are aware of the program. We want to make sure the supply and demand sides of the education equation are geared up and ready to go.

Q. In addition to the ESAs, what role do you think the state’s first three recently approved charter schools will play in improving education in the state? 

A. I think charter schools will be critical for West Virginia as they are yet another option for families. It is important for West Virginia to have good – as defined by families – traditional public schools, public charter schools, co-ops, micro schools, private schools, etc., and I think choice will create a rising tide that lifts all ships in the state.

Charters will also help acclimate parents and families to the simple idea of having a choice – that’s never been the case here. West Virginia will have many education reforms getting off the ground at once, so it will be fascinating to watch how everything harmonizes over the coming years.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for reimaginED. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.