by Jessica Dobrinsky
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, schools around the country closed, hoping to contain the growing virus’ spread. Children stuck at home struggled to find a way to connect to the internet, pay attention in class and even find ways to eat at lunchtime. Others who attended private schools faced an additional challenge of watching the places they loved permanently close their doors.
COVID-19 highlighted the horrendous problems in education across the country that have existed for decades. The ongoing pandemic brought to light the need to keep children front and center of every education conversation.
It is important that West Virginia join with the many other states that prioritize students over systems by expanding educational freedom with education savings accounts and the expansion of charter schools.
In 2019, West Virginia expanded open-enrollment and legalized charter schools across the state, a public education method created to remedy emotional, behavioral and educational needs for K-12 children. However, we can do more. With the mass migration to error-ridden at-home learning, parents and students welcome alternative education ideas.
The Cardinal Institute conducted a survey of West Virginians to determine their education views. It showed that 82% of parents said that the crisis has made them more likely to consider alternative educational options, and 37% believed the number of charter schools should not be capped — providing more educational opportunities in the future.
While online learning worked phenomenally well for some students, it left many others behind. Those who struggled were required to remain in their at-home courses with no other available options — or they couldn’t afford them. The number of students failing one or more classes continued to grow with the extension of virtual learning.
In circumstances as extreme as what we’ve endured the past 12 months, teachers and students should not be restricted to a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Students who need extra attention should be provided the opportunities to receive those resources in ways that empower families to make the best educational decisions possible for their children.
West Virginia’s lawmakers have a chance to rectify this need in the upcoming legislative session. In 2019, West Virginia legalized the foundations of charter schools across the state.
Despite this, we have yet to establish a single charter school in West Virginia. This is because not only did the 2019 bill cap the amount permitted to open each year, but it also left the approval process to the county board of education. The latter has continued to be outspoken against charter schools and has continued to restrict access — denying the state’s first charter school application.
In addition to charter school expansion, the legislature should create an Educational Savings Account (ESA) program. ESAs are tax dollars set aside that can be directly accessed by students and families. By providing direct funds, children have the opportunity to supplement their existing education with tutoring and other services, or they can attend another school that better meets their needs.
ESAs not only provide significant assistance to families but to taxpayers and traditional public schools as well. In Arizona, one of the first states with ESAs, there has been a significant positive impact of relief to taxpayer spending, requiring fewer dollars for better results. If West Virginians had access to ESAs before 2020, perhaps these funds could have supplemented online learning and allowed students to retain information in a struggling environment.
Additionally, private schools’ closures have forced many children back into an already overcrowded public school classroom. ESAs could help private schools, as families would have additional funds to pay tuition, allow students to receive the education they need and welcome smaller class sizes.
West Virginia is on the verge of a paradigm shift in education. Lawmakers begin their regular session in February and should be actively identifying policies that work for students in preparation. Expanding the charter school application process and creating ESAs would empower families and bring a brighter future for all children in the Mountain State.
Jessica Dobrinsky, of Morgantown, is the policy development associate at the Cardinal Institute, where she focuses on education and tax.