Gov Accountability

Cardinal Institute increases access to education in West Virginia

Cardinal institute

West Virginia families have lacked access to tailored education options throughout the state’s history. In 2016, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy identified these inequities in education and began conducting research and advocating for solutions that might bridge the gap between educational outcomes. These efforts, supported by strong partnerships, led to the adoption of the WV Hope Scholarship program, which is expected to provide new learning opportunities for generations.

Nearly five years ago, the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, an Atlas Network partner, released their first study examining the possible benefits of education savings accounts (ESAs). The report, titled West Virginia and Education Savings Accounts, explained how this “relatively new school choice program” could increase access to educational opportunities for families in the Mountain State. Funded by an Atlas Network grant, the paper provided policymakers with state-by-state comparisons in addition to real stories of West Virginians struggling to access education options customized to fit their students’ needs. This report was the first step in what became a multi-year education reform project for the Cardinal Institute. As a startup organization, Cardinal developed a comprehensive strategy that included establishing partnerships with stakeholders, meeting with policymakers, and hiring additional full-time staff.

Atlas Network featured Cardinal’s work to bring ESAs in a short film, called Education Reimagined, that was screened in December 2020.

Fast forward to 2021, when the Cardinal Institute is celebrating the passage of the Hope Scholarship, which is being touted as “the nation’s most inclusive education savings account program.” The passage of WV House Bill 2013, signed into law by Governor Jim Justice on March 29, 2021, is being hailed as a major win for school choice. Proponents suggest that this legislation will allow West Virginia families to create an education experience tailored to meet children’s learning needs. In an interview, Cardinal Institute’s executive director, Garrett Ballengee, said that “it’s difficult to overstate the impact this law will have on West Virginian families.” Ballengee went on to describe how the unprecedented inclusivity of “the Hope Scholarship will bring school choice to all families, not just those who can afford it.”


Three men in conversation at a small table.
Cardinal Institute Executive Director Garrett Ballengee speaks with prospective investors at Atlas Network's inaugural U.S. Investors Summit, where he took home the $75,000 prize in the Smart Bets pitch competition.

Atlas Network has invested significantly in Cardinal Institute since its founding. Ballengee (and his colleagues have) completed courses in the Atlas Network Academy, including a mentorship with president emeritus of Foundation for Economic Education, Larry Reed. The Fall 2016 issue of Freedom’s Champion featured Cardinal’s early work and its dream to bring ESAs to West Virginia. In late 2019, Cardinal won the top prize of $75,000 in the Smart Bets pitch competition at Atlas Network’s inaugural U.S. Investors Summit. Most recently, Atlas Network featured Cardinal’s work to bring ESAs in a short film, called Education Reimagined, that was screened in December 2020.

The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy was founded in 2014 and hired Ballengee, Cardinal’s first employee, in 2015. Despite the political obstacles faced in recent years and the need to educate many West Virginians about what school choice means for education outcomes, Ballengee and the Cardinal Institute team have achieved numerous policy successes, the most recent coming in the form of education savings accounts.