Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” – Frederick Douglass

Over the last five years, the debate over education and education reform in West Virginia has been fierce and steps toward progress have been measured in inches, not miles. The education status quo in West Virginia is defended by the most entrenched special interest group remaining in the Mountain State – teachers’ unions. From statewide strikes to the melodramatic Kabuki theater of public hearings, teachers’ unions can exert an enormous amount of direct and indirect pressure on the education debate.

And yet … there can be no denying that progress has been made. In 2019, West Virginia’s first-ever school choice bill was passed in the form of mandatory open enrollment and public charter schools. Admittedly, this progress is small in instrumental value, but make no mistake, it is huge in symbolic value.

In 2020, an impressive, enterprising group of charter school board members filed for the first charter in West Virginia’s history. Sadly, yet unsurprisingly, two county school boards unanimously rejected the charter school’s 450-page application for vague, incoherent reasons. However, it appears likely that the school boards missed the deadline to approve or disapprove of the application which, by law, results in an approval. Naturally, the school boards dispute this, so, like many other things in West Virginia, the matter will ultimately be decided in a court of law.

In any given moment, it is easy to get down or depressed when one considers how much time and effort has been put into moving the ball forward for thousands of families who simply want an option to the traditional public education system. However, that is in incorrect way to view the last five years of struggle. It is because the ultimate goal of education choice for every child in West Virginia, regardless of income, is so great that the struggle must necessarily be great. As Douglass so eloquently put it, any progress must be accompanied by struggle, and what a righteous struggle it is.


Garrett Ballengee is the Executive Director for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.