Equalizing Access for West Virginia’s Students

Written by HHOMA Executive Director Jill Upson for June 2021’s Black by God Magazine

After weathering several decades of poor outcomes, frustrated parents, and the unmet educational needs of many students, West Virginia has finally broken down the barriers to having choice in education. Out of the twenty-five states, and the District of Columbia, that have some form of school choice, only two rank lower in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading assessments than West Virginia. In 2019, Black students received an average score of 239 in reading and 261 in math. This is 23 and 20 points below the national average in reading and math, respectively.

While we can all celebrate the commitment to traditional public education made by both the Governor and the legislature over the last five years with significant increases in funding and autonomy, this additional step to empower parents is already proving to be a game-changer for West Virginia kids. Just last week, on the Center for Education Reform Parent Power Index (PPI), West Virginia rose from forty-ninth overall to fourth in the nation (States Rise in Education Index, 2021). This long overdue reversal of fortune is a welcome salve to the disparities that have failed our minority students.

Never before has the failure of a one-size-fits-all approach been more pronounced than during the challenges that were confronted by our teachers, students, and parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Extended school closures, adoption of unfamiliar models of learning, and other pandemic-related disruptions in learning have exacerbated long standing gaps in our previous education landscape. To address these gaps, the West Virginia legislature leveraged its powerful majority to expand on the number of permissible public charter schools in the state. Studies show that Black and low-income students have made the largest gains in student outcomes by enrolling in public charter schools. According to one study, the NAEP math and reading score gains of Black students were four times greater than that of their traditional school counterparts, over a twelve-year period (Jacobson, 2020).

In addition to the expansion of public charter schools, West Virginia also created the HOPE Scholarship program. This is an education savings account option for parents that would allow their currently enrolled public-school child to apply up to $4,600 of their child’s education funding toward tutoring, educational therapies, private school tuition, and other individualized services. The child’s “home” school will keep the remaining local and special education federal funds totaling approximately $7,400 even though they will no longer be tasked with educating that child. Counties that have passed excess levies will keep an even larger portion under the same scenario. Our traditional public schools come out ahead, while our low to moderate income families receive greater access to educational opportunities that have always been available for affluent families. This is equity in action.

This year, we are celebrating our nation’s 156th Juneteenth commemoration. We are also celebrating the very first year that Juneteenth will be an official state-recognized holiday in West Virginia. With so much already in store for us to celebrate, we can now add educational opportunity, especially for the African American community which was historically barred from formal education, as another reason to cherish our freedom and the unlimited opportunity that a solid educational foundation brings.

Jill Upson is a former representative in the West Virginia House of Delegates and is an appointed member of the Governor’s cabinet in the role of Executive Director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs.


Jacobson, L. (2020, September 9). Charters Close Achievement Gap With District Schools, Study Finds, With Black and Low-Income Students Making the Greatest Gains. The 74.


States Rise in Education Index. (2021, May 27). The Center for Education Reform.