West Virginia and Kentucky Now Lead the Way in School Choice
Union strongholds and racked by the ‘Red for Ed’ movement in 2018 and 2019, West Virginia and Kentucky have since passed some of the broadest school choice legislation in the country’s history.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice speaks during a press conference at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va., on March 12, 2020. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Sir Isaac Newton’s famous third law of motion stated that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The corollaries between actions of the living, free-willed beings and natural law must not be pushed too far, but it would be difficult to resist the urge in West Virginia and Kentucky.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed the nation’s broadest education savings account (ESA) bill into law on March 29. Shortly thereafter, the Kentucky Legislature overrode Gov. Andy Beshear’s veto of the second-broadest ESA bill in the country.

If one were to rewind the calendar just three years, such broad education-choice victories would have seemed nearly impossible. Beginning in 2018 in West Virginia, the “Red for Ed” movement – the name given to the wave of teacher strikes due to red shirts worn by striking education workers – led to the Mountain State’s 265,000 students missing two weeks of instruction while some teachers protested for higher pay and against charters schools and private school choice programs such as ESAs. Kentucky faced similar strikes that year, as well.

While opponents attempted to make the education freedom movement into an “us vs. them” fight, it was never about political tribalism. It was always about one thing: kids.

Despite the political threats, brave legislators in both states recognized the need for a seismic reorientation of the K-12 education system from being primarily concerned with the interests of adults to those of children. The fact that kids thrive in different environments is so obvious that it should be taken for granted, but heated political rhetoric too often clouds the debate around how society can best educate children with different needs, talents and proclivities.

The COVID-19 pandemic also began to show parents not only what their kids were being taught but how their kids were being taught. For many, neither was satisfactory. Some children thrived in the digital environment while many others were simply miserable. It was a stark contrast that began to shed light on the universal truth that different kids need different things. It was education choice’s time to shine in the deep, shadowed valleys of Appalachia.

Registered traveling nurse Patricia Carrete, of El Paso, Texas, walks down the hallways during a night shift at a field hospital set up to handle a surge of COVID-19 patients, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, in Cranston, R.I. Rhode Island’s infection rate has come down since it was the highest in the world two months ago, and many of the field hospital’s 335 beds are now empty. On quiet days, the medical staff wishes they could do more.

While West Virginia and Kentucky are now leading the way in school choice, the states have lagged behind most others for generations when it comes to metrics such as test scores. The National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) – known as the Nation’s Report Card – demonstrates this fact. In 2019, West Virginia fourth-graders ranked 49th in mathematics and 48th in reading, while Kentucky’s scores have been stagnant for a generation of students accompanied by a widening achievement gap. Education is about much more than standardized test scores, but those results were not likely to assuage parental concerns about the education their children were getting.

In the end, the multiyear quest for a child-centered K-12 education system in West Virginia and Kentucky culminated in a resounding victory for families, just two years removed from massive opposition.

Few people look to Appalachia for inspiration or innovation, but that will no longer be the case in education. For the first time in the region’s history, Appalachia is blazing new paths for children. As legislators in several other states introduce similar education choice legislation, they would do well to follow West Virginia and Kentucky’s lead. There is no interest more special than that of a child’s, and, finally, against all opposition, two states have reminded all of us.

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