“It’s a game-changer,” says Garrett Ballengee of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a conservative think tank and proponent of the bill. “If you add up every single ESA utilizer in the rest of the country, there are only about 20,000 of them. The Hope Scholarship will automatically open it up to ten times that many children in West Virginia alone.”
Applicants for the Hope Scholarship will receive 100 percent of their state education dollars — $4,600 annually — in lieu of public schooling. (County and federal funds will remain in the system.) The scholarship is usable for private school tuition, homeschool curriculum, or other education expenses. Gov. Jim Justice, a vocal opponent of ESAs as recently as 2019, has signaled he’s likely to sign.
For a state that couldn’t pass a far more modest measure just two years ago, it’s a breathtaking turnaround. What changed?
Elections Have Consequences
State Sen. Patricia Rucker, the Republican chair of the Senate Education Committee and chief architect of the ESA effort, has a few theories about what made the difference. First, she believes the majority of West Virginians never opposed school choice in the first place; they were simply afraid to say so.
“During the strikes, I saved a folder of all the people who wrote to me in support of the education reform. I kept all of their emails,” Rucker told me in an interview. “The vast majority of them said something like, ‘Please don’t use my name. Don’t tell anyone I wrote to you.’ They were so scared and intimidated by the teachers’ unions.”
In 2019, I wrote about the climate of union intimidation that was silencing the state’s parents and teachers. When Justice commissioned a “listening tour” to gauge public opinion, the West Virginia Department of Education co-opted the effort and manipulated its findings. This lead to the much-repeated assertion that 88 percent of West Virginians opposed charter schools. But when the 2020 elections came around, voters finally spoke for themselves.
“I knocked on thousands of doors during my 2020 reelection campaign,” Rucker said. “Out of all those people, I only spoke to about five educators who were opposed to our education reform — that’s it. Most of the people who spoke to me about education were in favor of choice. Even the vast majority of educators I spoke to said, ‘I didn’t have any problems with charter schools. I think it would be good for us to have that opportunity.’”
The proof was in the poll returns. Despite fierce opposition from unions and their moneyed interests, all but two of those 18 education reformers returned to the Senate in 2020, and several more were added to their number. It was an affirmation that educational choice can be a winning political issue, even in states with a strong union presence. Contrary to their tightly controlled narrative, teachers’ unions hadn’t been speaking for the people. They had been shouting the people down.
Teachers care about teachers first and foremost.