Ep. 99: School Survey Series – Exploring West Virginia’s Private Education Sector

February 15, 2019

EdChoice’s Drew Catt talks with Garrett Ballengee, Cardinal Institute’s executive director, about lack of school choice options in West Virginia. Our new study with the Cardinal Institute shows the state’s existing private schools would be open to participating and have thousands of open seats to spare.

Drew Catt: Hello. I’m Drew Catt, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. Today, we’re discussing a new brief by Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy and EdChoice, exploring West Virginia’s private education sector. Mike Shaw and I surveyed leaders of West Virginia private schools on a range of topics, which I am excited to discuss today with Garrett Ballengee, Cardinal Institute’s executive director. Welcome to the podcast, Garrett.

Garrett Ballengee: Thanks for having me, guys. Happy to be here.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so before we get into this new research, would you tell our listeners what education choice options West Virginia currently provides parents?

Garrett Ballengee: Sure. First, I want every listener to imagine a vast, hot, dry desert and then equate that to school choice. We are one of the few states in the nation that has no form of choice, whether it be public charter schools or private options like ESAs and vouchers and tax- credit scholarships. Unfortunately, we are one of the last states whose population can enjoy those kinds of options.

Drew Catt: Well, we did ask private school leaders about their awareness of tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts, or ESAs, and nearly half of West Virginia private schools know about the concept of ESAs and slightly more than one-third are familiar with tax-credit scholarships. Garrett, how would you say awareness is locally of these types of school choice options among schools and families? Could you describe some of the efforts on the ground to educate school leaders about potential choice programs?

Garrett Ballengee: Sure. Yeah, so amongst our kind of close coalition I would say awareness is quite high about ESAs and tax-credit scholarships and the kinds of things those opportunities could bring to their respective schools. When we first got the results back, I kind of flip-flopped between being encouraged and slightly discouraged. On the one hand, I think it’s a great thing. ESAs have really only been a topic of discussion for about three years here in West Virginia, so you see about half to the schools are aware of that program, but the other side of me was like, “Well, gosh, we still have a lot of work to do.”

I mean this has been in the news a lot. We’ve done a lot of online marketing and going to kind of statewide school conventions and reaching out to private school leaders and just informing them of the opportunity, and trying to build coalitions around ESAs and private school choice and things like that. When you kind of look back at all the blood, sweat, and tears that we’ve put into this, and we’re still hovering at that 50/50 number, it was somewhat discouraging, but on the other hand these things take time, as you guys know, as well as anyone, ESAs are a new concept, starting in 2011.

I do think that we’ll kind of hit a tipping point here in a number of the schools. Hopefully we can get that number as close to 100 percent as possible because ESAs are such an opportunity for private schools in West Virginia.

Drew Catt: Yeah. That would be very cool. The data shows high percentages of West Virginia private schools say they would or probably would participate in these types of school choice programs, which is positive for school choice advocates. One thing that does hold private school leaders back is the potential burden of certain regulations that would come with these programs. What are you hearing from private school leaders, in terms of their concerns with potential choice programs and what specifically do you think is giving them pause?

Garrett Ballengee: Well, if you look at the survey, so the number one area of concern, as it relates to regulation, was curriculum and instruction. Right? These guys are very nervous about any kind of additional regulations being hoisted on them by insert regulatory body here. That was the highest intensity was curriculum and instruction. Whenever we talk to people about these kinds of issues that is one of the first questions that I tend to get is, “Well what strings come attached?” Right? With government sheckles come government shackles. I think these leaders are aware of that as much as anybody. They’re also concerned about things like certification and teacher licensure.

That’s something that opponents of school choice and education reform talk a lot about, particular as it relates to charter schools. “Well, oh my goodness, you guys could hire unlicensed, uncertified teachers and so, therefore, we need to put additional regulations to ensure that doesn’t happen.” That’s something that the private school leaders here in West Virginia are very aware of and want the flexibility to be able to hire and create a staff that will best serve their constituency and their community.

Naturally, you would expect them to be a little bit nervous about regulation and the data certainly says that. The survey bore that out.

Drew Catt: Yeah, interestingly enough, one of my first research projects when I joined this organization was looking at these rules on private schools through these programs. Kind of looked at the 12 oldest programs and, fascinatingly enough, the regulatory area that program regulations affected the least, or one of the least, was the curriculum and instruction. It’s just fascinating that I’ve seen time and time again that these private school leaders are concerned about that, when in reality not a lot of the programs out there actually touch curriculum and instruction.

Garrett Ballengee: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think a lot of that, at least as it relates to West Virginia, is there’s still a lot of discussion about common core here or kind of what the remnants of common core are. Any time you go to kind of a community meeting or kind of a coalitional meeting of folks that are interested in education reform common core still comes up. To some extent, we’re still haunted by the specter of common core here.

Drew Catt: Right. Well, I’m excited to talk about how the data from the survey informed some of the common claims made about school choice. EdChoice is a national organization, so we hear lots of arguments on a national scale. We hear people say, “There’s not enough space in private schools to fill the demand choice programs create,” and “private schools don’t accept students with special needs, and “private schools are still too expensive even if families get scholarships or vouchers or ESAs.” I’ll guarantee you hear some of these same claims locally. Could you give us a sense of the local sentiment before we talk numbers?

Garrett Ballengee: Yeah. There are a couple things going on there that I think are pretty interesting, at least as they related to West Virginia. West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the country. There’s always this sort of class consciousness, I can say, that kind of occurs here. Most people, especially given the fact that we have really no education choice options here, by a huge number go to public schools. Right? The kids that do go to private schools, whether they be Catholic schools or otherwise, or Montessori, or anything related to that, there is this narrative that gets built around well the only people that can send their kids to those schools are the doctors, or the engineers, or the vice president and his wife at the bank. Something like that tends to really prevail.

What I think is pretty interesting is the numbers that we got back on median tuition levels. The median tuition in West Virginia, across all schools and private schools, is $4,000. Very reasonable. As the survey had reported, there is quite a range there. I think it was $1,800 to well over $10,000 tuition and fees. I think most people saw that the median tuition’s only $4,000. Suddenly, that takes it out of the realm of only the very upper-middle class in West Virginia to folks that may not be necessarily very well off, but, unfortunately, I think for most folks here even $4,000 a year is probably out of the realm of possibility for most people in West Virginia, which is why it’s so important that we get these kinds of programs in place, to help those people have those opportunities.

Drew Catt: Yeah. While it is definitely important to point out that median cost of $4,000, we did find that on top of that 73 percent of private schools already offer their families financial assistance to attend. Garrett, I want our listeners to have some context in that West Virginia public schools spend about $11,000 per pupil each year. What could this cost data mean for families you work with every day?

Garrett Ballengee: It would be a huge help, right? If you’re looking at an ESA or just tuition assistance on the part of private schools that goes a very, very long way. Whether or not the $3,200 ESA, which is what’s been in discussion a lot here in West Virginia, which approximates to about 75 percent of the state portion of the funding formula here in West Virginia, that’s a huge help to a lot of families. If you’re looking the median tuition’s $4,000, the ESA’s $3,200. You’re looking at $800 for the average family to come up with to send their kid to an institution or learning environment that best suits his or her needs. So, that would go very far.

I’ve talked to a lot of private school leaders to talk about it. They don’t necessarily like to broadcast it, per se, but they do have very generous supporters and things like that, that there is scholarship money there for these families that if their kid is just not fitting in at the public school, but you don’t think you can afford it, come down and talk to us. Right? Let’s just talk about it and to see what we can work out to the benefit of the child. There’s a lot of opportunities there. I think the choice ecosystem, outside the legislative environment, is somewhat rich here. I think these kinds of data can inform these discussions for us.

Drew Catt: Again, back to the claim here that there’s not enough space to fill the demand that a program would create. The good news is, we do have the data to look at. When it comes to the question of whether there’s enough supply to meet demand, we found that West Virginia private schools have at least 1,786 open seats. That’s just the number of seats as reported by the respondents in our survey. Based on current enrollment, we projected an estimate of all West Virginia private schools open seats to be about 6,300. How did you react when you first learned about these numbers? Were you surprised at all?

Garrett Ballengee: I was. I was surprised on the positive side. It’s nice to know that regardless of the kinds of legislation that gets enacted or anything like that, just that aside, that there are institutions there that have space and, as we’ve seen in other data points in the survey, the willingness to accept additional students in order to help them or to facilitate their education. Just by way of context, West Virginia is a small state, relatively speaking. It’s 1.8 million people. The largest high schools in West Virginia tend to be right around that 1,500 to 1,800 enrollment.

Really, the way I sort of took this is if you sort of extrapolate that out, like we did in the survey, 6,000 seats available you’re looking essentially the equivalent of the three largest public high schools in West Virginia that have seats open completely ready to accept kids to private school. That’s sort of how I took that data is like, my goodness, the three largest schools in West Virginia, technically speaking, would have every seat open just in the private side of things.

Drew Catt: That is really fascinating context. Before we sign off, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Garrett Ballengee: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just important that the folks understand the value of these kinds of surveys and this data, and maybe I’ll just speak briefly to kind of reformers and choice advocates. We have a lot of work to do. Just conveying the benefits of choice programs to really the folks that if you look at the data in other states stand to benefit the most, apart from the students and children themselves, the private institutions. I would just encourage everyone to continue to reach out to continue to build coalitions around this issue and maybe, at least in West Virginia, we can take that awareness from 50 percent up to 100 percent. That’s probably how I would close that.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s a great target. Well, thank you so much for taking the time with us today, Garrett.

Garrett Ballengee: All right, thanks for having me.

Drew Catt: Well, that’s all for this episode. Thanks again to our listeners for tuning in. As always, be sure to subscribe for more EdChoice Chats, and we’ll catch you next time. Take care.