As the lawyers for the educational choice movement, IJ has advocated for educational choice in legislatures and courtrooms across the country for nearly three decades. We have seen firsthand the difference that allowing children to pursue an education that works for them can make. And after the past year, parent frustration with the public education status quo is at an all-time high. More families than ever before have begun to rethink how education is provided in the United States, and interest in educational choice programs that offer new and nontraditional alternatives has surged.
Two states, Kentucky and West Virginia, showcase just how much can happen when parents stand up and push for educational opportunity.
IJ has long worked with legislators and other advocates in both states to establish a foothold for educational choice. Year after year, we and our allies faced intense backlash, union strikes, and legislators who lost their nerve. This year was no different when it came to the intensity of the opposition. Although state capitols were closed to most rallies and in-person visits amid the pandemic, opponents dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars to demanding that legislators slam the door on reform.
This time, though, the outcome was different.
In Kentucky, IJ worked with allies to craft a flexible, constitutionally sound education savings account (ESA) program. The program would give families accounts that can be used on things like textbooks, tuition, therapies, and tutoring. West Virginia proposed a similar and even more inclusive ESA program, basing it on IJ’s model legislation—ensuring it, too, would pass constitutional muster.
Throughout the year, we worked alongside parents in both states, holding virtual trainings and events to introduce them to the proposed programs and help them fight for their passage. In Kentucky, allies and parents worked with IJ to share stories in innovative ways, like geo-targeted online ads, video campaigns, and even two outdoor rallies. In West Virginia, we identified parent leaders, trained them to be successful advocates for choice, and worked with them to launch a statewide parent network. And in both states, we assisted parents as they prepared for testimony or drafted op-eds and letters to the editor.
There were many times that the odds seemed daunting and the chances slim, but we didn’t give up for one simple reason: Families need choices, especially now.
And families prevailed. Kentucky and West Virginia both passed their ESA programs, opening the door for more than 250,000 students to get a better education. As Liberty & Law goes to print, these are the two most expansive ESA programs in the country.
Meanwhile, a record number of states have introduced bills to expand or pass new educational choice programs. Ten states so far have passed these measures, with others like Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Texas working hard to catch up and pass their own. It is too early to say exactly how many more will join Kentucky and West Virginia, but we know one thing for sure: IJ will be there, working alongside parents and advocates to let children learn.
To learn more about how to advocate for educational choice in your state read A Family’s Guide to Grassroots Activism.
Rebekah Bydlak is an IJ activism manager and Rachelle Engen is IJ’s educational choice fellow.