“Is being content a good thing?” Educational programs alumnus Garrett Ballengee (KIP Summer 2011, KAP 2012) had wrestled with this question for three months. He had a good job in Washington, D.C., and plenty of opportunity ahead, but something new was shaking his assumptions. A policy think tank was forming in his home state, West Virginia, and needed an executive director. Should he leave the comfort of the city behind and build something new?
Ballengee took on the challenge, moving to West Virginia in 2015 to start the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy. Cardinal now has five full-time employees, and is celebrating the West Virginia legislature’s decision to create an education savings account program (ESAs). The Cardinal Institute was an early champion of ESAs, and supported the idea’s development with research and education.
We asked Ballengee for a behind-the-scenes view into West Virginia’s education movement, and how his time at CKI prepared him for this challenge.
CKI: What inspired you to go home to West Virginia?
Ballengee: I heard Charles Murray speak when I was in KIP. He’d just written a book, Coming Apart, about two different Americas. One, “super zip codes” or “belmonts,” were places like D.C., where I lived, full of prosperity. The second, “fish towns,” were crumbling communities where basic institutions were in decline. His analysis made me think about the people I grew up with in West Virginia. West Virginia is the only state with a smaller population now than in 1950. People leave the state and don’t come back.
I was quite comfortable in D.C., but felt a call to go home. When I saw the opportunity at Cardinal, I thought, “holy cow.” It was an opportunity to test myself, to see if I could apply the principles I learned at CKI for the benefit of my home state.
CKI: How did KIP and KAP prepare you to lead the Cardinal Institute?
Ballengee: Market Based Management (MBM) gave me a structure for approaching problems.
I needed a coherent framework to approach my job. I also needed to be entrepreneurial. The Cardinal Institute is small. I was the first and only employee when we started. How do I leverage our resources, and how do I bring other people on board and grow?
MBM helped me with hiring. It gave me a way to interview somebody and identify unique talents and virtues.
KIP and KAP projects make you work through a problem systematically. That experience made it easier for me to lead Cardinal. I knew how to make an issue resonate, and how to identify potential partners.
For example, one important relationship we developed was with our local public broadcasting channel. We had criticized their coverage of the ESA idea, and they invited us to meet. We developed a partnership and eventually were on their weekly news broadcast. That opportunity allowed us to reach nontraditional audiences with our ideas.
How we approached the discussion around ESAs ran completely parallel to what I did in KIP and KAP.
CKI: How did the ESA idea develop?
Ballengee:Cardinal Institute introduced West Virginia to the concept of ESAs in 2016. Back then only a handful of states had them. So we spent our first 18 months just educating people on the idea. We hosted events, spoke with media, and we listened to people’s thoughts about our state education system.
The legislature introduced a bill to create ESAs in 2017. It didn’t go anywhere that year, nor in 2018 when it was reintroduced. But we kept talking about the possibility and the potential of an ESA program in West Virginia. ESAs were included in a large education bill in 2019, but were later removed.
But after the November 2020 election, the legislature gained ESA supporters. And some members were switching positions. A lawmaker initially opposed to the idea gave a speech on the Senate floor in support of ESAs. She told a personal story from her teaching career about one of her students who had dyslexia. She said she would support the bill because of that student. The ESA bill passed in 2021. It is the most comprehensive ESA program in all 50 states.
CKI: How will West Virginians benefit from this program?
Ballengee: Ninety percent of West Virginia students are immediately eligible to participate. Through an ESA, parents will receive $4,600 to customize their child’s education. There’s no similar program in the United States with this eligibility. Families can spend the money on tutoring, or therapies for a special-needs child, on any number of educational supports. The only limit is a parent’s imagination.
CKI: What’s next for Cardinal Institute?
Ballengee: How do we grow in a smart way? What do we turn our searchlight on next? There are several options. I imagine I’m going to be using some of the tenets of MBM to answer those questions.
CKI: What advice would you give young people eager to make a difference?
Ballengee: Consider where your roots are, and where you can help. For the three months before I left Washington, I’d been wrestling with the idea of being content. I would ask people: Is being content a good thing?
I decided contentment was not what I wanted. I wanted to be challenged. You may think that moving back home is void of opportunity, or that you don’t have the ability to take on a new challenge. But take the risk. I’ve grown so much over the last five years — and I’m more than content. I’m fulfilled.
CKI’s educational programs equip innovators to discover their personal passions and make an immediate impact — to create new ventures, improve existing institutions, and contribute right away. Whether you are just beginning your venture or further along, we want to hear from you.