West Virginia Is Seizing The Moment To Make School Choice History. Will More Rural States Follow?

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School choice and rural communities are a lot like oil and water: historically, they haven’t mixed. Efforts to expand educational options for families have instead been more focused on America’s cities, where access to these options abound. But now, thanks to West Virginia, states may have a model for expanding school choice for families living outside major urban areas.

West Virginia’s Historic Expansion of School Choice

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.
National Center for Education Statistics, Fall 2018.

Until recently, West Virginia was a part of the bloc of rural states like Nebraska, Vermont, and the Dakotas that prohibited the authorization of charter schools. That changed in 2019 when the government enacted a law allowing charters to receive financial support from the state education system, and this year, West Virginia made history by approving three brick-and-mortar charters alongside two virtual academies.

While the brick-and-mortar schools will serve the more populated Morgantown and Eastern Panhandle areas, the virtual charters will be open to students statewide. The West Virginia Virtual Academy, which will be run by Stride, Inc., will have a career-technical education focus and will enroll up to 2,500 K-12 students. The second, Virtual Preparatory Academy, will be run by Accel and will enroll up to 2,000.

Why Does It Matter?

Speaking broadly, it matters because students in West Virginia will now have increased access to learning opportunities. With traditional public schools facing the largest enrollment decline since World War II, there’s a clear demand for these opportunities among families and young people.

But there’s even more to it than that. Historically, school choice has been seen as an urban issue, but the state’s authorization of two virtual charters will expand options for students statewide. Even families in the state’s rural communities can benefit.

Despite the negative connotations that remote learning may have gained throughout the pandemic, the demand for these virtual charters suggest not all parents are ready to hit pause. For families living in rural communities which are too sparsely populated to support more than one school, virtual learning at least offers an additional choice to help better meet their children’s needs. And what’s more: it could spur other states to take notice.

If a state like West Virginia can overcome connectivity issues, geographic isolation, and statewide strikes and protests to expand educational opportunities for families, any state can. Who’s next?

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