There is a common misconception among education reform advocates that passing universal choice legislation is akin to summiting Mount Everest. Upon universal choice’s enactment into law, it is done. Time to exhale and pop the champagne, for the mountain has been scaled.
Not so fast. What has actually been achieved, in mountaineering terms, is that a base camp has been established. When the governor puts pen to paper, planning must begin anew to ensure post-passage success.
West Virginia passed its path-to-universal education choice bill in March of 2021. At the time, it was the broadest education choice program in the country. It was subsequently held up in the courts for several months while its constitutionality was confirmed. If your state passes a universal Education Savings Account bill, it too, will almost certainly be challenged in the courts and will likely find itself in front of your state’s highest court.
Since then, in West Virginia, implementation has been challenging in some obvious, and not-so-obvious, ways that can be grouped into five main categories: 1) supply/demand considerations, 2) evolving coalitions, 3) outreach, 4) public relations, and 5) case management.
Supply and Demand
Upon passage, demand for choice will likely surge for a bit, temper, then steadily increase as families become aware of the program and hear from neighbors, fellow church attendees, and other connections about their new options. Education reformers who advocated for the legislation’s passage can play a key role in shaping the demand. How should the program be advertised and to whom? Where will deliver the most bang for each marketing buck? How will public awareness be generated?
There must be someone willing to build awareness around the new program. Many choice programs languish with public awareness levels that would make most reform advocates blush. Failure for an education choice program does not often come in the form of mistakes, fraud, or incompetence. More frequently, the problems are apathy and ignorance.
The flip side of demand is supply, built by expanding existing capacity, attracting providers from elsewhere, and cultivating new supply from within. Consider how your organization or coalition can engage on this level.
Shrewd advocates will begin working on solving the lack-of-supply problem before it becomes a problem. Make sure local private schools are aware of the legislation—believe it or not, many of them won’t be. Help them sign up. Identify successful programs or schools across the country and reach out and let them know about new opportunities catalyzed by your new program. Be on the lookout for the edupreneurs in your state. Who’s leading a successful education program? Who is building a new microschool? Who are the connectors within the nontraditional education ecosystem? Who simply needs a bit of help or encouragement to start something new? They are out there. Find ways to find them.
Coalitions, Outreach, Public Relations
A post-passage choice coalition will be different than what is required for pre-passage. Begin thinking about who needs to be involved and what role they can play. You won’t have control over this entire process. Coalitions will naturally and spontaneously evolve, but it doesn’t hurt to start thinking about whose role should now be expanded, who should take a back seat, and who should be welcomed into the effort.
What about outreach? The nexus of a successful choice program will shift somewhat from legislative considerations, lobbying, and bill design towards family outreach and relationship cultivation, specific government agency relationships, and broad marketing campaigns.
Let’s face it, your newly enacted program will have bumps, bruises, and will proceed with some fits and starts. Perfection is not of this world. Setbacks are to be expected with anything new, let alone something of the size and scope of a universal choice program. Not everyone in the world is as happy as you that universal choice is now a reality. There are legions of entities, from the public education establishment to unions and union-friendly media, looking for any anecdote or half-truth to besmirch the new program.
Take a deep breath and begin planning for this reality.
Gather stories about successes—big and small—and cultivate relationships with storytellers who see the world you do. Be ready to tell the story many people not only don’t want to read themselves, but also do not want others to read: education choice is good and a moral necessity.
Finally, one last push up Reform Everest.
You have to figure out how – not if – to help the families about to embark on this journey for the first time. Families are the reason you started out to base camp in the first place, so now is not the time to abandon them to the crevasses of uncertainty. You must figure out how to manage each “case” not only for the sake of the family and child but also for the overall health of the program.
There will be grandparents who have never used a computer now asked to upload a birth certificate on their grandchild’s behalf. There will be parents with limited education who know only one thing when it comes to navigating this fresh bureaucratic concoction: “my child needs something different.” Be sympathetic, but, more importantly, develop competence.
Learn the law and accompanying statutes backwards and forwards or find someone who does. You must have a path or contact for families to use. “I don’t know the answer, but I know someone who might” will become one of the most useful phrases in your reform handbook.
Set boundaries for engagement with families. Parents and legal guardians will, understandably, want an answer at all hours of the day, but be cautious, for this is where burnout lies. Be intentional about when, where, and how questions will be answered. Reasonable limits will ensure a process in which all parties are satisfied or put on the path to satisfaction.
Though the last few steps up the mountain are the steepest and most difficult, they are also closest to what we are looking for when we embark on our journey: helping children find their own path to their own personal summit.
Garrett Ballengee is executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.