Quality education is essential for a flourishing life, but for decades, students in West Virginia have been trapped in a system that consistently lands at the bottom of national rankings with no alternatives. This situation was unacceptable to leaders of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, and in 2015 they began a journey to transform education in their state.
Because of Cardinal Institute’s tireless efforts, West Virginia opened to charter schools in 2019, and this year the West Virginia legislature adopted the Hope Scholarship Program, a nation-leading education reform effort that provides funding directly to families and students rather than systems. Parents across West Virginia now have the agency they need to make the best decisions for their children. By introducing competition into the education marketplace, Cardinal Institute has revolutionized educational choice, creating the gold standard for reform and bringing a West Virginia miracle closer to fruition. In recognition of this achievement, Cardinal Institute won State Policy Network’s 2021 Communications Excellence Award in Powerful Storytelling.
“We are humbled to be a finalist for this year’s Templeton Freedom Award. There are so many deserving organizations across the world doing important work for freedom, so for the Cardinal Institute to receive consideration for this honor is truly surreal,” said Garrett Ballengee, executive director of Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. “To be clear, victory has many fathers, so while the Cardinal Institute is receiving this recognition, there are so many others who contributed time, effort, and equity into this achievement. It is our sincerest hope that education freedom continues to spread across the country, and world, and if the Hope Scholarship can serve as an inspirational catalyst for others fighting the good fight, then what a remarkable legacy for liberty it will have.”
Cardinal Institute worked with a number of organizations to effect meaningful change. Their coalition started with just two groups—EdChoice and Americans for Prosperity West Virginia—but eventually added several more.
The effort to expand educational choice in West Virginia has been a core goal of Cardinal Institute since its founding in 2014, and it picked up speed in 2015 when Ballengee was hired as executive director and first employee
Cardinal Institute formed a coalition with several other concerned groups to focus on achieving educational agency through education savings accounts (ESAs). They knew that the deeply entrenched status quo would make revolutionary change difficult, but Cardinal Institute and their partners were dedicated to achieving their goal and ready for the long haul.
Education savings accounts allow funds earmarked for individual students that would normally go straight to a public school district to instead be placed in a savings account. Those accounts can be used by parents to empower alternate educational options like private schools, charter schools, home schooling, and several other possibilities.
To kick off their campaign in 2016, Cardinal Institute-led coalition worked to build awareness and educate key groups on school choice and how it could benefit West Virginia. In a state that, to that point, did not even allow charter schools, the coalition had their work cut out for them. They held meetings to introduce the concept of education savings accounts, and engaged the public, stakeholders, and potential coalition partners with the same goal. Late in the year they published their first policy paper on ESAs to draw attention from a wider audience.
In 2017, state legislators introduced three ESA bills, one of which made it through the Senate Education Committee. Along with their partners of EdChoice and Americans for Prosperity West Virginia, the Cardinal Institute held a panel discussion with The Heritage Foundation for legislators to further advance their familiarity with ESAs and increase traction for the idea. They also launched a new website, Choices for Children, to showcase the benefits education choice would provide for West Virginia’s children.
The year 2018 was a busy one. With their two partners, the Cardinal Institute participated in National School Choice Week for the first time, presenting their vision of education freedom in the Eastern Panhandle, earning them coverage from a local TV news station. They published another study on ESAs, this time focusing on the benefit to special needs students. Several more friendly bills were proposed, but none made it far in the legislative process.
That year, Cardinal Institute and their partners faced an additional challenge—a 13-day teachers’ strike protesting low pay and high healthcare costs. That strike triggered similar actions in several other states, drawing the attention of both legislators and the public away from educational choice reform. The successful strike forced Cardinal Institute to reevaluate their strategy and confront the reality of actors hostile to their ESA campaign. They refocused their efforts on growing their coalition further, and made plans for an even bigger emphasis on 2019’s National School Choice Week. They were able to add to their list of partner organizations Catholic Education Partners, the West Virginia Christian Education Association, the Association of Christian Schools International, and important individuals from those groups.
The 2018 election cycle introduced several new legislators who could become interested in the education reform Cardinal had been popularizing. An education omnibus bill was introduced in the Senate early in the 2019 legislative session. The bill included provisions for charter schools, ESAs, and more funding for public schools. In addition, the House of Delegates saw the introduction of an ESA-focused bill. While the omnibus bill advanced further than previous efforts, it triggered another teachers’ strike. This time, the teachers’ union focused on killing the education choice bill as it would introduce competition to their monopoly. The strike was successful, and the bill was all but killed.
However, the governor called a special legislative session that summer to focus on education reform. While the unions once again leapt into action, they were less successful this time around. The session passed some charter school legislation, but still no educational savings program.
The next year, 2020, was another active one. Cardinal Institute again held a National School Choice Week event, attended by 650 people. An education freedom-themed movie screening reached another 100–150 people. Due to attention being drawn to an election year, that year’s two ESA bills got little attention and did not advance. The COVID-19 pandemic proceeded to throw plans into disarray and brought a new dynamic to the education reform debate. Cardinal Institute used the opportunity to build relationships with parents frustrated with schools’ responses to the pandemic. Encouragingly, the 2020 election saw the re-election of West Virginia’s governor and a supermajority of legislators interested in ESAs in both houses of the state legislature.
The next year, 2021, was finally the year to bring educational choice to West Virginia, and Cardinal Institute kept up their efforts, pushing hard to make sure the Hope Scholarship bill—the ultimate education savings account legislation—became law. A no-holds-barred marketing campaign included a press conference featuring leadership from the House of Delegates and parents of West Virginia students. A “Humans of New York”-style series showcased how the Hope Scholarship would help individual West Virginians, driving home the incredible potential of educational choice to transform lives and foster a long-neglected recognition of the dignity of the state’s children.
The Hope Scholarship bill was passed by the West Virginia legislature on March 17, 2021, and signed into law by the governor ten days later. The program will launch on March 1, 2022, and over 250,000 students will be immediately eligible. Private and homeschool students may be eligible in 2026, adding an additional 20,000–25,000 eligible students. Cardinal Institute is working hard to encourage other states to adopt similar programs, multiplying the impact of their multi-year efforts many times over.
About Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy:
The Cardinal Institute’s vision is called the “West Virginia Miracle.” It envisions an all-encompassing (holistic) turnaround that will transform our state into a beacon of prosperity and hope. We believe that for this miracle to occur, it must be built on four pillars: economic freedom, education freedom, worker freedom, and Montani Semper Liberi—Mountaineers Are Always Free, the state’s motto and founding ethos.
About Atlas Network:
Atlas Network increases global prosperity by strengthening a network of independent partner organizations that promote individual freedom and are committed to identifying and removing barriers to human flourishing.
About Atlas Network’s Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2021 finalists:
Awarded since 2004, Atlas Network’s Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and will be presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on December 14 in Miami, Florida, at loanDepot (Miami Marlins) park. The winning organization will receive a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists will each receive $20,000 prizes. The finalists for Atlas Network’s 2021 Templeton Freedom Award are:
Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy (Charleston, West Virginia), for their work on education reform;