Hope is a powerful, uniquely human concept.

Hope is also a necessity to persevere through the trials and tribulations, the ups and the downs, of the human experience that all of us inevitably will face.

Hope is especially important as the country approaches what is, hopefully, the twilight of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hope is exactly what the last week of January offers hundreds of thousands of children and families across the country every year.

National School Choice Week (Jan. 24-30) and the thousands of events nationwide focusing on it are about hope and celebrating the ability of education to foster, nurture, and develop our best instincts, as well as dampen and soften our worst impulses.

To many, 2020 came dangerously close to stamping out hope for millions of children across the United States, but National School Choice Week is 2021’s first shot at renewing the brightness that’s so often shown by children doing what they are all intended to do; namely, learn.

On the eve of March 2020, most parents across the United States probably thought “school choice” was an abstract policy idea. Perhaps a few percentage points of parents had kids in charter schools or were utilizing some sort of private school choice program, such as education savings accounts, but the vast majority remained unaware of them, if not uninterested.

Enter the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been a seismic shock for nearly every sector of society, particularly to the health care industry and to K-12 education.

In my home state of West Virginia, on March 13, 2020, all of the state’s 55 public school districts—a school system charged with educating about 250,000 students and employing 20,000 teachers—were shut down, thus ushering in a new paradigm of home-based learning, virtual education, and alternative education models for the Mountain State.

It’s a paradigm that is still shifting to this day.

West Virginia is no stranger to debates about parental choice in education, but, sadly, it is unfashionably late to the education choice party.

West Virginia did not pass charter school legislation until 2019, finally removing itself from among the handful of states that deprive families of this decades-old option. But it remains one of the two dozen states with no private-school choice option on the books, though valiant efforts have been, and will continue to be, made to change that.  

Children in Appalachia do not have many opportunities or reasons to be hopeful. The negative statistics are legion, as are an array of barriers—from drug overdose death rates to falling life expectancy rates to unemployment and poor education outcomes.

Nor can those children often look to popular culture or media for anything beyond derision, much less encouragement. And yet, during National School Choice Week, for those thousands of children across Appalachia, and here in West Virginia, none of that bleakness, none of that narrative, casts a shadow. It is simply kids envisioning their own futures.   

While education can be the great equalizer for the poor West Virginian or the impoverished inner-city child, it can also blunt enthusiasm and inculcate feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness if the child is not learning in an environment that fits his or her needs.

That should be incontrovertible, yet due to political pressure, the debate rages on.

The beauty of National School Choice Week is that it brings together students from every education environment and socioeconomic background imaginable—whether it is public schools, private schools, magnet schools, charter schools, education savings account beneficiaries, or homeschoolers.

It’s a demonstration that while each child is different, they may each succeed, if only they are given a chance.

That’s what education choice is about; namely, a chance. Every year, millions of students needlessly fail or do not make strides toward being the best version of themselves, simply because their families do not have the ability, means, or opportunity to provide them with something other than the status quo.

Education choice can offer our children and our country something different. Education choice can offer one thing above all else; namely, hope.

Let us take some time during National School Choice Week 2021 to do something far too rare over the past 12 months. Be hopeful.

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