Religion & Liberty Online

‘Education Reimagined’: West Virginia’s quest for school choice

Screenshot (Dignity Unbound)

West Virginia’s schools have historically ranked among the lowest in the nation, even as spending per student continues to rate well above the national average. Unfortunately, instead of pushing for reform, teachers unions and state legislators have fought vigorously to protect the status quo.

In 2018, teachers went on strike for nine days, demanding higher pay and better benefits. In 2019, they stayed home again, protesting the state’s decision to legalize charter schools and offer various alternatives. This past January, the threats continued as the state promoted a return to in-person learning. Meanwhile, in a season defined by virtual learning, student suffering has become even more pronounced, given that between 30% and 50% of West Virginia’s K-12 students are without internet access.

Thankfully, educational freedom appears to be rising. Having recently won supermajorities in both state chambers, Republican legislators are pushing for a number of reforms. In addition to reinforcing a state law that makes teachers’ strikes illegal, the West Virginia House of Delegates is pushing to expand the state’s number of allowed charter schools from three to 10. The House also recently passed a largely unrestricted voucher program, which would “provide a currently estimated $4,600 per-student per-year to every family for every child they remove from public schools to home- or private-school them.” Each proposal awaits further action from the Senate, but the prospects look promising.

Such strides come after years of hard work and investment among parents, churches, activists, entrepreneurs, and various institutions.

In Education Reimagined: The Journey of West Virginia, a new nine-minute documentary from Dignity Unbound, we hear the stories of some of the people behind the policies.

“If you wanted to turn West Virginia into an economic backwater, you would try to implement the education results that we’ve seen,” says Garrett Ballengee, executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a state think tank that has been actively pushing for greater family choice. “We’re trying to reform the system, not for some abstraction. We’re trying to reform it for families.”

Through the decades-long work of Rev. Matthew J. Watts, a local minister in Charleston, we learn that the fight is about far more than simply boosting test scores or shuffling kids off to college. It’s about treating our children with dignity and allowing communities to freely respond to their needs.

As one example, Watts explains how the state’s lack of educational choice is keeping certain families trapped in schools that are disproportionately punitive to African American students, leading to disenfranchisement that is fueling a rise in juvenile crime across their community. Watts explains:

We found that there has been a huge discrepancy in discipline and suspension, particularly of African American children vs. everyone else. What was most alarming and disturbing is that it’s just simply been ignored, by the leaders at the state level and the county level.

So ,what happens? Suspension. It drives absences for a lot of students, and that means they’re missing academic instruction. Well, suspension also drives truancy, because those suspended days are unexcused absences. Truancy is the number one factor that brings children in West Virginia into the juvenile justice system. We think that this may be the valve. If you put your hand on this suspension, and we keep kids in school and connected, then we’ve got a chance that maybe they will have a better educational outcome.

When these issues manifest in a local public school, where are the parents supposed to turn? For West Virginians, the primary options have thus far been found through private schools.

“I think it’s important to try to innovate and to reimagine, re-engineer, and redesign the current system,” Watts explains. “I believe that we need a menu of options that communities and that parents can select from. I believe that if we have a model that allows flexibility at the local level, a model that empowers a local governing body, a model to give that principal the authority that he or she needs that engages parents and engages the entire community, I think the current system can be changed.”

Although voucher programs and additional charter schools appear to be coming in the near future, Charleston is currently a school desert of sorts, breeding institutional conformity that sets the system against students who don’t fit a particular mold.

Through the story of Jennifer White, a mother of three from Barboursville, we learn how such conformity also harms children with unique learning styles. When her son was diagnosed with moderate dyslexia, White received little support from local public resources, prompting her to start her own tutoring service – offering a new option for those like her son who were underserved by the system. “We truly need an army of tutors to address this,” explains Jennifer. “Every kid is different. Every kid learns in a different way, and they deserve to have their needs met.”

Many public schools offer such support, but what happens when they don’t? For many families across the country, these specialized services are either unavailable or unaffordable, leaving students alone as local governments and unions work to stiff-arm any form of outside competition.

If families were able to allocate these funds for themselves, how many more Jennifers would spring up across the country, tailoring their services toward individual students and families rather than the arbitrary objectives of politicians, unions, and administrative committees?

“Innovation is fundamentally about discovering what works,” says Ballengee. “To the extent that you put a lid on innovation, and as it relates to education, you’re putting a lid on potential. We have to have an above-all solution. We have to let a million flowers bloom.”

While critics of school choice claim that these movements are driven by corporate interests, the film clearly demonstrates the fight for educational freedom is driven primarily by boots on the ground – individuals who have seen real pain and suffering, and recognize that the systems in place won’t adjust without a significant disruption.

This is a fight that focuses beyond test scores, budget battles, or political squabbles. Ultimately, this is a fight centered on respecting families and empowering children, each of whom is born with dignity and tremendous creative capacity.

“Education really touches everybody,” Ballengee concludes. “It touches the rich, the middle class, the poor class, the working class – it doesn’t really matter. And to the extent that mechanism is broken, then we begin to understand why other segments of society are broken right along with it.”

Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.