Over the weekend, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed the Hope Scholarship program into law marking a major victory over the teachers’ unions which crippled his state’s education system years before.
In February 2018, the state legislature in West Virginia enacted legislation which provided teachers with an immediate 2% increase in pay followed by a 1% increase each of the next two fiscal years. The very next day, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association called for a complete “work stoppage” and demanded higher pay and improved health benefits for its members. The strike lasted for 13 days shutting down school in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties. Teachers only returned to work after a 5% pay hike was implemented. The victory further emboldened unions in the state, and once again in 2019, teachers went on strike in search of another increase in pay. This time, the “work stoppage” lasted only two days with the WV House quickly caving to the demands of the union and passing a “clean” pay raise bill. However, 18 Republicans in the Senate chose to stand firm which forced the Governor to call a special session of the assembly to negotiate a deal between the two parties. Although the budget agreement conceded a raise in pay to teachers, Republicans were able to salvage important elements of the school choice movement including the existence of open enrollment and charter schools.
This week, West Virginia flipped the script and enacted the nation’s most expansive Education Savings Account program. Signed on Saturday, House Bill 2013 creates the Hope Scholarship program which allows parents to withdraw their children from public school and receive an estimated $4,600 to cover private or homeschool costs. Currently, six other states offer ESA programs, but their programs are limited to low-income or special needs groups. West Virginia, on the other hand, allows any student to take advantage of the Hope Scholarship.
Last month, I detailed some school choice initiatives that are making headway in their respective state legislatures. In Iowa, SF 159 passed the Senate and faces a vote in the Republican-controlled House next month. In Indiana, Rep. Bob Behning’s school choice legislation cleared the House and moved on to the Senate where Republicans hold 39 of the 50 seats. Conservatives are finally beginning to seize on an issue that has broad public support and could soon enact major reforms in an effort to return power to parents and reduce the role of teachers’ unions and the government in the development of children. While reformative legislation has stalled in New Hampshire, Missouri, Florida, and Washington, the school choice victory in West Virginia should serve as a model to other states who hope to augment choices offered to parents. Families should serve as the sole determinant of their child’s learning environment, and legislatures across the country should work to ensure universal access to educational freedom.