Almost heaven, West Virginia….When John Denver penned those iconic words in 1970, he was no doubt captivated by West Virginia’s natural beauty. It’s a pretty state known for its scenic mountains, rolling hills, and expansive forests.
But behind this beautiful exterior lies a state that’s suffering. West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country. In national rankings, it’s last or near the bottom in terms of access to a quality education, public health, and life expectancy. It’s last in labor force participation, with just 54.8 percent of the population employed or looking for a job.
What is causing West Virginia’s lack of prosperity? Why is it an “island” of poverty in the wealthiest country in the world? But more importantly, what can be done to put the state on a path to success?
The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a nonprofit in Charleston, has some ideas.
When the organization opened its doors in 2015, Cardinal identified four pillars that would transform West Virginia into a beacon of hope and prosperity—a dream Cardinal calls the “West Virginia Miracle.” One of those pillars is education freedom. Cardinal realized a quality education system is the foundation for a healthy economy. Without a good education, children do not receive the tools they need to get a good job and live a fulfilling life. And without quality workers, businesses in the state won’t be able to grow. If businesses can’t prosper, neither can the state. A broken education system leads to a broken economy.
This isn’t good news for West Virginia—a state that has one of the worst education systems in the country. In fact, twenty percent of West Virginians struggle with low literacy levels. According to one study, only 23.9 percent of West Virginia’s eight graders were proficient at math, and only 27.8 percent were proficient at reading. This is despite the Mountaineer State spending more than $12,000 per student on education.
Which brings us back to education freedom. To ensure West Virginia children have access to a quality education that prepares them for college, a career, and life, Cardinal launched a multiyear campaign to give West Virginia families something they’ve never had—a choice in where their children go to school.
Cardinal reached a significant milestone on March 27, 2021, when West Virginia passed the Hope Scholarship—legislation that will expand educational opportunity for thousands of children in the Mountain State.
How did Cardinal do it? Let’s take a look.
Before Cardinal Institute entered the scene in 2015, no one in West Virginia was talking about the need for alternative education options. The state had just three education choices: public schools, private schools (the majority are religious in West Virginia), and homeschool.
Families who couldn’t afford to send their child to private school or weren’t able to homeschool had to send their child to public school. For many parents, their public school is a great fit for their child. They live in a good school district and are satisfied with their child’s education. But for thousands of other West Virginia families, their child’s public school does not fit their unique needs. Maybe they live in an area with a failing school. Maybe their child has special needs, and the public school, through no fault of its own, doesn’t have the resources to accommodate children with special needs. Or maybe their child is bullied, and they want to put them in a different environment. Because they can’t afford to send their child somewhere else, these families unfortunately don’t have options.
Cardinal believed all West Virginia families, not just wealthier ones, should be able to access an education that best fits their unique needs. One way to reach that goal is through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are state-supervised funds that parents can use to pay for a wide variety of education options, including private school tuition, online learning, textbooks, and even services and therapies for students with disabilities—whatever their child most needs to thrive.
Cardinal made it a priority to convince West Virginia to adopt an ESA program.
In 2016, Cardinal published its first study that argued West Virginia could benefit from the implementation of ESAs. Cardinal argued giving parents the ability to choose the learning environment that best fits their child’s needs will put those children, and the state, on a path to success. The Institute shared this study with policymakers, the media, and the public.
In January 2018, Cardinal released another report that explained how ESAs can benefit children with special needs in particular. The study highlighted David Cartwright, a Arizona boy with cerebral palsy and microcephaly. Through Arizona’s ESA program, David was able to attend a private school that gives him special attention, and his mom was able to use the account to give David vision and anger management therapy. Cardinal pointed out West Virginia has more than 44,000 children with special needs, and if state lawmakers adopt an ESA program, all of those children will have more learning options available to them.
Later that month, Cardinal hosted its first National School Choice Week event that brought together parents, homeschoolers, and private schools to celebrate West Virginia’s education options. Cardinal realized the importance of bringing different groups and communities together and started to build a school choice coalition in the state.
As Cardinal began to build its coalition, the state’s education system became a topic of national conversation. On February 22, 2018 teachers throughout the state, protesting low wages and poor healthcare, went on strike. The strike closed schools for two weeks and triggered other teacher strikes across the country. Most West Virginians were sympathetic to the teachers, who are one of the lowest paid teachers in the country. In early March, the West Virginia Governor signed legislation that gave the teachers a five percent raise.
In February 2019, teachers went on strike again, but this time their concern wasn’t low wages. Teachers’ union leaders called for a strike after the West Virginia Senate passed a bill that would create the state’s first charter schools.
Unlike the 2018 strike, West Virginians were less sympathetic to this protest. In less than two years, the state’s 270,000 public school students lost two to three weeks of learning from strikes alone. Parents were upset with this additional learning loss and grew more frustrated with the poor education outcomes for their children.
Given the climate, Cardinal made one of the biggest pushes to date for parental choice. The Legislature introduced a massive education reform bill that would create a number of charter schools and provide ESAs to special needs students. Although the entire bill didn’t pass, lawmakers did pass the charter school provision. The legislation allowed the state to create three charter schools every three years.
Because the Legislature introduced a significant education reform bill, Cardinal was able to identify which lawmakers were interested in advancing school choice, and their coalition continued to grow.
The pandemic upended all aspects of our lives, but Americans especially felt the disruption in education. Schools closed and millions of children were abruptly sent home for online learning. As these closures extended into the fall, many parents grew dissatisfied with their child’s virtual learning environment. Millions were eager for alternative education options. Cardinal paid close attention to these concerns and started to develop relationships with parents in the Mountain State.
Cardinal partnered with the Institute for Justice to create a parent-focused group, Education Choice West Virginia. The group consists of 30 to 40 parents and educators who want to increase school choices for families in West Virginia. Developing these relationships with parents allowed Cardinal to share real stories of West Virginia families who want and need education choice.
Cardinal’s executive director, Garrett Ballengee, added: “The importance of the relationships we built with parents during the summer and early fall of 2020 cannot be overstated when considering the successes in 2021.”
In the November 2020 election, West Virginians elected a Republican supermajority in both the House of Delegates and the State Senate, and the Republican Governor won re-election. Cardinal knew many of these new legislators would be interested in advancing school choice. The Institute began to prepare for the upcoming legislative session.
To kick off the new year and get lawmakers excited about education reform, Cardinal held information webinars on ESAs via Zoom in January 2021. One call drew 15 legislators, and all but two were newly elected members.
Cardinal’s coalition, what once was just a group of three organizations in 2015, had now grown to 11 organizations. There’s the parent-focused part of the coalition, Education Choice West Virginia, the legislative part that meets weekly and includes groups such as Americans for Prosperity, and then a more general group of state and national partners interested in advancing parental choice, called West Virginia Voices for Education Choices. Each of the organizations in the coalition sent a letter to state lawmakers encouraging them to support ESAs.
As lawmakers began drafting an ESA bill called the Hope Scholarship, they had questions about how an ESA program would work in West Virginia. Some policymakers had concerns about how an ESA would impact public schools in the state. Cardinal began to develop educational resources based on these inquiries from the Legislature. Cardinal created one-pagers, “myth buster” policy briefs, FAQs, and even graphics that explained what ESAs are and how they would help West Virginia families.
Cardinal’s Communications Director, Amanda Kieffer added: “We’ve become a legislative go-to for a lot of issues, especially education, because we pioneered the idea in the state.”
Cardinal promoted these resources through social media, digital ads, and in the media. The organization placed op-eds in outlets across the state, and Ballangee appeared on several radio stations. Thanks to their sound research, Cardinal became a top resource for reporters in the state as well.
Through an Owned Audience Grant from SPN, Cardinal was able to hire Iron Light, a digital marketing agency that helped them run targeted ads and grow their owned audience—or people in the state who have subscribed to Cardinal’s brand. This owned audience allowed Cardinal to communicate directly and build more relationships with West Virginians interested in education freedom.
Cardinal also launched a “Humans of New York” series of stories that focused on West Virginians and how they envisioned the Hope Scholarship program affecting their lives or the lives of people they serve.
The West Virginia Legislature passed the Hope Scholarship on March 17, and the governor signed the bill into law on March 27, 2021. When the program officially opens for applications on March 1, 2022, more than 90 percent of K-12 students in West Virginia will be eligible for the program—giving education opportunity to the more than 300,000 children in the state. Thanks to the Cardinal Institute, the Mountain State is one step closer to the “West Virginia Miracle.”
Since Cardinal was founded in 2015, the organization has dedicated considerable time and effort into building coalitions throughout the state.
Cardinal did this by first thinking about who would benefit from an ESA program in the state and then reaching out to those groups. That meant parents, homeschool organizations, and private school organizations throughout the state. From there, Cardinal brainstormed non-traditional partners who might be interested in education freedom. That meant church leaders and community organizations. The Institute encouraged other state think tanks not to overlook this important group. Kieffer added:
“A lot of state think tanks are so focused on politics that we forget the Junior League, the Masons, and the Women’s Club exist and care about the issues going on in their communities. We’re working on reaching out to those groups and trying to grow individual connections and further that community trust. Don’t just stop at your Chamber of Commerce—try to think outside the box. It is the civic organizations you really want involved.”
By building an effective coalition, Cardinal was able to ensure their work wasn’t siloed and everyone was working together towards the same goal. And by including parents in the coalition, Cardinal was able to share powerful stories of real people whose lives would be improved by ESAs.
Cardinal recommended other state think tanks working on education reform make coalition building a top priority—and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Kieffer noted:
“If it was literally just Cardinal, this win would have taken two to three times as long. Asking Americans for Prosperity to help with the grassroots outreach, asking SPN for communications support and training, asking national groups for grant funding, and reaching out to the Institute for Justice for litigation support was crucial. Obviously, we want to be the ones that say yeah we made the big difference—and in a lot of ways we did. But don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think that’s the real power of our movement. We’re all working together, and we’re not siloed. Leaning on each other has been invaluable throughout this entire process.”
Congratulations to the Cardinal Institute for giving thousands of West Virginia families hope for a brighter future. For their success, the Cardinal Institute is a finalist in State Policy Network’s Bob Williams Awards for Policy Achievement, in the Biggest Win Category. Cardinal is also a finalist in State Policy Network’s Communications Excellence Awards in the Powerful Storytelling Category.
Everything you need to know about Education Savings Accounts (ESAs)
State Policy Network
Hope Scholarship Info for Parents
Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy