Portland’s Regional Transit Strategy Is Not Working

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The Portland Auditor released the 2016 Annual Community Survey on November 30. The responses show that the share of all commute trips taken by public transit fell 17% during the past year.

This was part of a longer-term decline in transit use. The transit share of all Portland commute trips peaked in 2008 at 15%. Since then it has hovered near 12%, and now rests at 10%.

Taxpayers should be especially concerned about the negative correlation between passenger rail construction and market share. In 1997, when the region had only one light rail line—the Blue line to Gresham—transit market share was 12%.

After extending the Blue line to Hillsboro and adding four new lines plus the WES commuter rail and the Portland Streetcar, transit market share is only 10%.

Travel Mode Share for Weekday Commuting

Portland citywide, 1997-2016

Mode 1997 2000 2004 2008 2010 2012 2014 2015 2016
                   
SOV 71% 69% 72% 65% 62% 61% 63% 60% 61%
Carpool 9% 9% 8% 8% 7% 6% 6% 5% 6%
Transit 12% 14% 13% 15% 12% 12% 11% 12% 10%
Bike 3% 3% 4% 8% 7% 7% 8% 7% 8%
Walk 5% 5% 3% 4% 6% 7% 8% 9% 9%
Other n/a n/a n/a n/a 7% 6% 6% 7% 7%

      Source: Portland Auditor, Annual Community Survey

The numbers cited above are for citywide travel patterns. When broken out by sector, the Auditor found that just 5% of all commuters in Southwest Portland took transit to work in 2016. Despite this lack of interest by commuters, TriMet and Metro are working to gain approval for another light rail line extension from Portland State University through SW Portland to Bridgeport Village. The likely construction cost will be around $2.4 billion.

Unfortunately, there is no empirical basis for thinking that cannibalizing current bus service with costly new trains would have any measurable effect on transit use.

Transit advocates like to claim that we simply need to spend more money to boost ridership, but we’ve already tried that. TriMet’s annual operating budget went up from $212.2 million in 1998 to $542.2 million in 2016. After adjusting for inflation, that’s an increase of 72%. Those increases were on top of construction costs for rail, which cumulatively exceeded $3.6 billion during that era.

It’s time to stop the myth-making and start holding public officials accountable for a plan that isn’t working.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Power Is the Narcotic of Choice for Politicians

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Oregon’s free-market research center, Cascade Policy Institute, celebrated its 25th anniversary with a gala dinner party on October 20 at the Tualatin County Club. Since its founding in 1991, Cascade has emerged as a leading voice for individual liberty and economic opportunity. Building coalitions with others, Cascade has helped develop innovative policies such as Oregon’s charter school law and the more recently enacted Right-to-Try statute.

Cascade helped Ethiopian immigrants break the Portland taxi cartel and secure a license to operate a new company. The Institute also helped a young Black woman start her hair-braiding business by persuading the legislature to repeal onerous licensing regulations.

And a paper first published by Cascade in 1996 suggesting that 84,000 acres of the Elliott State Forest be sold off helped persuade the State Land Board to do just that; a sale will be approved by the Board in December of this year.

However, such advancements will be tougher to come by in the years ahead, because the culture of Oregon has changed. The permanent political class that now rules the state has little respect for the entrepreneurial spirit.

The 2016 legislative session served as Exhibit A for this change. In the short space of 30 days, the majority party rammed through two major pieces of legislation: (1) a dramatic increase in the minimum wage; and (2) a mandate forcing electric utilities to provide 50% of their retail load from designated “renewable energy” sources.

Each bill only received a few hearings. Vast areas of complexity were brushed aside as unimportant. When hundreds of witnesses showed up pleading for a more incremental approach, they were dismissed. In 35 years of lobbying, I had never seen anything like it.

This was in contrast to Cascade’s early years, when the organization sponsored “Better Government Competitions” in 1994, 1996, 1998, and 2000. These events solicited good ideas from citizens about how to make government work better. Top officials including Governor John Kitzhaber and Portland Mayor Vera Katz enthusiastically endorsed Cascade’s “citizens’ suggestion box.”

Today, many elected officials openly disdain the public they serve. They don’t want your ideas, just your obedience and your tax dollars. Moreover, if you compromise and give them half of what they want today, they’ll be back for the rest tomorrow.

Nowhere was that more evident than with the so-called “coal to clean” bill in 2016. Why was this topic even being discussed when only nine years ago the legislature passed SB 838, which mandated that large electric utilities procure 25% of their power needs from specified “renewable energy” sources by 2025?

SB 838, passed in 2007, was seen as a visionary achievement. The leading legislative advocates, Senator Brad Avakian and Representative Jackie Dingfelder, were exultant. Oregon was now on a path to renewable energy Nirvana!

Yet by 2016, the “25 by 25” banner was seen as wimpy and out of date. Oregon’s perceived reputation as an international environmental leader had been undercut by legislation elsewhere. So the new (arbitrary) standard became “50% by 2040.”

We can do better than this. Perhaps if Measure 97 fails, legislators will stop looking for quick fixes and work together on tax reform. There are officials in both parties willing to tackle PERS reform and transportation finance, if the Majority party allows it.

Replacing hubris with humility would be a good first step.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the October 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Oregon Must End “Economic Apartheid”

By Randal O’Toole

The housing affordability crisis is turning Portland, already one of the whitest cities in America, into one that is even whiter. Census data indicate that, between 2010 and 2014, the number of whites living in the city of Portland grew by 30,500, or 6.8 percent, but the number of blacks shrank by 4,500, or 11.5 percent.

Some of those blacks moved to Portland suburbs, but most moved out of the Portland area completely. While the number of whites in the Portland urban area grew by 94,000, the number of blacks shrank by 3,400.

Even before 2010, Portland’s high housing prices were negatively affecting blacks and other low-income groups. Census data show that, between 2000 and 2010, the share of households headed by whites living in single-family detached homes declined by 3.3 percent, but the share of households headed by blacks living in such homes declined 16.1 percent.

Housing prices also affected homeownership. Between 2000 and 2010, the share of whites living in their own homes fell by 2.2 percent, but the share of blacks (which was already well below the white share) fell by 12.6 percent.

In short, Portland’s housing affordability crisis forced some low-income people to leave the region and others into lower-quality housing. This process has led some to charge the region with “economic apartheid.” Yet, planners defend the region’s housing prices, one saying, “This is capitalism; how do you fight it?”

In fact, Portland’s high housing prices aren’t a result of capitalism; they are due to government land use restrictions. Portland planners celebrate the fact that the region’s urban growth boundary has forced the population to “grow up, not out,” as the region’s population density has grown by 20 percent since the boundary was first drawn in 1979.

Such increased densities are a prescription for increased land and housing costs. In 1990, an acre of land suitable for home construction inside the growth boundary cost about $25,000. Today, a similar acre, if you can find it, would generally cost about $300,000.

Higher land prices are accompanied by increased regulation as Portland-area governments know that homebuyers have few alternatives if they don’t want to endure long commutes. In 1999, the Portland City Council approved a comprehensive design ordinance despite warnings from the Home Builders Association of Metropolitan Portland that the new rules would make housing more expensive.

Portland and other Oregon cities also have stiff system development charges that can add $20,000 to $40,000 to the cost of a new home. By comparison, similar charges in Houston, one of the nation’s most affordable housing markets, are less than $2,000 for homes of up to 3,000 square feet.

In 1990, the median value of owner-occupied homes in the Portland area was twice median family incomes, which was very affordable. Today, thanks to the growth boundary and regulation within the boundary, it is nearly five times median family incomes, which is very unaffordable.

These policies effectively discriminate against low-income blacks and other minorities; and under a 2015 Supreme Court ruling, they violate the Fair Housing Act just as much as if Portland put out a sign saying, “No blacks allowed.” The ruling said that land use policies that make housing more expensive can be legal under the Fair Housing Act only if they have a legitimate goal and there is no other way of accomplishing that goal without making housing less affordable.

For example, requiring sewer hookups makes housing more expensive but has a legitimate goal of protecting public health. The goals of the urban growth boundary and densification, however, are either not legitimate or could be achieved without creating a housing crisis.

Boundary advocates often claim the growth boundary is needed to preserve farms and open space. But all of the urban developments in Oregon only occupy 1.5 percent of the state; and if there were no boundaries, it still would be less than 2 percent. Urbanization is no threat to Oregon farms, forests, or open space.

Advocates also claim that densification will lead people to drive less, saving energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, the effects of density on driving are tiny, especially when compared with the huge costs; and there are much better ways of saving energy and reducing emissions that don’t make housing unaffordable.

To end discrimination against blacks and other low-income minorities, the Oregon legislature must repeal the state’s land use laws that authorize growth boundaries and other regulations that make housing unaffordable.


Randal O’Toole is an adjunct scholar with Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is the author of Cascade’s new report, Using Disparate Impact to Restore Housing Affordability and Property Rights.

Abolish Growth Boundaries to Ensure Fair Housing

By Randal O’Toole

A recent Supreme Court decision found that government policies that make housing expensive may violate fair housing laws. This decision could have a profound impact on Portland’s housing market.

Portland’s rapidly growing housing prices are a major hardship on newcomers, renters, and low-income families. Particularly hard hit are blacks, whose per capita incomes remain only about 60 percent of whites’.

The housing crisis has actually forced many blacks to move outside of the region. According to Census Bureau estimates, between 2010 and 2014, white numbers grew by 6.8 percent in the city of Portland and 6.5 percent in the Portland urban area, while black populations fell by 11.5 percent in the city and 5.3 percent in the urban area, thus reaffirming the claim that Portland is “the whitest city in America.”

Though many urban planners deny it, there is no doubt that the ultimate source of Portland’s housing crisis is the region’s urban growth boundary. Common sense says that restricting the supply of something for which demand is increasing will cause prices to go up. This is confirmed by economic studies from Harvard, the Federal Reserve Board, the University of California, and the University of Washington, among other places, concluding that strict land-use regulation is the main cause of unaffordable housing.

Other policies also make housing less affordable, including lengthy delays in the permitting process, onerous impact fees, and gaudy architectural design codes. But these policies would have little effect if developers could meet market demand by building homes in unregulated areas outside of existing cities. Urban growth boundaries not only limit supply, but they shield city governments from outside competition.

In 1857, Oregon’s first constitution banned blacks from moving to the state. This was rendered unconstitutional by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1868. But in June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that governments that impose land-use restrictions that make housing less affordable can be just as guilty of violating the Fair Housing Act as if they put up a sign on their borders saying, “No blacks allowed.”

A rule written by the Department of Housing and Urban Development says that “land-use rules, ordinances, policies, or procedures” that make housing more expensive are allowable only if they are needed to achieve a “legitimate” goal and there were no other way of reaching that goal that wouldn’t increase housing costs. None of the reasons used to justify Oregon’s urban growth boundaries meet these tests.

For example, planning advocates say boundaries are needed to protect farms, forests, and open space. But more than 98 percent of Oregon is rural, and urbanization is no threat to the state’s agricultural or timber production.

Planning advocates also say boundaries help save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But research has shown that the effect of growth boundaries on these things is tiny, and there are far better ways of saving energy and reducing emissions that don’t make housing more expensive.

Many Portland planners argue that housing can be made more affordable by growing up, not out, that is, by increasing urban densities rather than allowing the region to “sprawl” across the landscape. But this has never worked anywhere.

Recent census data clearly reveal a strong correlation between urban densities and unaffordability. Moreover, fifty years of census data also show a strong correlation between increases in urban densities and declines in housing affordability.

For example, in 1969, the San Francisco Bay Area was very affordable, with median housing prices a little more than twice median family incomes. Since then, urban growth boundaries adopted by Bay Area counties have increased densities by 65 percent, while median housing prices have grown to seven times median family incomes.

When comparing urban areas across the country, it is clear that the key to housing affordability is to keep land outside of city limits relatively unregulated so that developers and builders can meet demand. For social justice, Oregon must repeal the laws allowing urban growth boundaries and regulation of unincorporated lands.


Randal O’Toole is an adjunct scholar with Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is the author of Cascade’s new report, Using Disparate Impact to Restore Housing Affordability and Property Rights.

Metro’s $32 Million Broken Promise

— Why You Should Vote Down Metro’s Natural Area Levy

By John A. Charles, Jr. and Allison Coleman

In 2006, the Metro Council submitted to the voters a general obligation bond measure in the amount of $227.4 million to fund natural area acquisition. The measure was approved.

In a little-noticed appendix to Resolution No. 06-367A, the Metro Council stated that greenway lands acquired with bond funds would be land-banked with limited maintenance beyond initial site stabilization and possible habitat restoration. The Council noted that it had the financial means to carry out this promise:

“Once the 2006 Natural Areas Bond Measure is approved by voters, Metro will commit existing excise taxes to this basic level of maintenance, with Metro having sufficient resources currently to manage the newly acquired properties in this manner for a period of approximately ten (10) years.”

If the phrase “existing excise taxes” seems puzzling, there’s a reason; almost no one remembers that in 2002, the Metro Council enacted a garbage tax of one dollar/ton for the specific purpose of funding operations and maintenance (O&M) of parks. That amount was raised to $2.50/ton in 2004. Between 2002 and 2015, the garbage tax brought in $46,789,044 for Metro parks.

Metro Solid Waste Excise Tax

Dedicated to natural area maintenance

 

Year Excise Tax Tonnage Total Revenue
2002 $1.00 1,251,823 $1,251,823
2003 $1.00 1,362,204 $1,362,204
2004 $2.50 1,563,884 $3,909,710
2005 $2.50 1,626,255 $4,065,637
2006 $2.50 1,720,168 $4,300,420
2007 $2.50 1,613,848 $4,034,620
2008 $2.50 1,524,370 $3,810,925
2009 $2.50 1,381,326 $3,453,315
2010 $2.50 1,320,992 $3,302,480
2011 $2.50 1,248,191 $3,120,477
2012 $2.50 1,297,716 $3,244,290
2013 $2.50 1,373,612 $3,434,030
2014 $2.50 1,431,132 $3,577,830
2015 $2.50 1,568,513 $3,921,282
Total Revenue     $46,789,044

Given that Metro raised all this money for parks, and promised no new taxes before 2016, why did Metro place an operating levy on the ballot in 2013 for parks maintenance (which passed); and why is Metro asking for voter approval of another $80 million parks levy in the upcoming November election? Where did the $46.8 million in garbage tax money go?

The answer can be found in a bait-and-switch ordinance adopted by Metro just a few weeks after the bond measure was referred out to voters in March 2006. The Council amended Metro Code Section 7.01.023 to retain the $2.50/ton excise tax, but “undedicate” its use so that revenues would be swept into the Metro General Fund.

Since 2006, regional taxpayers have paid more than $32 million in garbage taxes that should have gone to parks O&M, but instead went to other purposes.

Instead of owning up to this chicanery and restoring the garbage tax as a dedicated revenue source, Metro officials continue to make the case for a new property tax. In a 2011 publication, Metro claimed, “…the existing financial model is not sustainable. Metro’s portfolio of land continues to grow, while the general fund resources needed to support it are decreasing.”

In a more recent document, Metro asserted, “In Metro’s general fund, which pays for many primary programs and support services, costs continue to rise faster than revenues.”

Both of these claims are false. In 2011 Metro was already taking in more than $3 million annually in garbage tax revenue for parks. By the end of 2015 it was nearly $4 million.

Meanwhile, Metro was swimming in a sea of new revenue. The Metro Auditor found that during the 10-year period of 2003-2013, total annual revenue went up 22% in real terms, while total expenses went up only 16%. Annual revenue per capita for the Metro region went up 7%; expenses per capita increased by only 4%.

Metro Councilors now state that if voters refuse to approve a new tax levy in November, the agency will “have to ramp back pretty much everywhere.”

We’ve heard the scare stories before, but it’s time to call Metro’s bluff. Voters should reject the Metro tax levy (Measure 26-178 on your ballot) and demand that all money from the $2.50/ton garbage tax be rededicated to parks maintenance, as promised 14 years ago.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Allison Coleman is a research associate at Cascade.

Measure 97 and the Mirage of School Funding

— Voters are destined for disappointment

 

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Proponents of Measure 97 have consistently claimed that if the measure passes, it will generate an additional $3 billion annually for public education and other social services. Judging from the comments I’ve read in various Oregon newspapers, many people are falling for this argument.

Apparently none of the letter writers have ever watched a legislative appropriations hearing. These are the meetings where a tiny group of senior politicians sit in a back room and decide how to spend billions of dollars. I’ve watched hundreds of such hearings, and the most predictable outcome is that politicians will spend money in front of them on whatever they want.

Let’s just take a simple example. Oregon was one of 44 states that sued the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s to recover the health care costs associated with smoking. Plaintiffs claimed that the tobacco industry had long been imposing uncompensated costs on states in the form of health care for smokers who became sick from use of the product.

The suit was settled through adoption of a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco manufacturers. As part of the agreement, each state was to receive payments every year from 1998 through 2025.

According to the plaintiffs, the estimated $25 billion of MSA money was supposed to be used for tobacco prevention activities and health care subsidies necessary to treat smoking illnesses. But that was not a formal part of the agreement. Each state was free to use the funds in whatever way its state legislature approved.

In Oregon, total MSA funds received since 1998 have exceeded $1.26 billion. Almost all of it was spent on programs that had nothing to do with tobacco cessation or public health. Only 0.8 percent was appropriated for tobacco prevention programs.

How could this be? They promised!

Yes, Virginia, they promised. But every two years, 90 legislators show up in Salem, and they each have their own priorities. Once you put a pot of money on the table for them to spend, it’s game over.

Almost no one in the Capitol remembers what the MSA was, and, furthermore, they don’t care. They only care about spending money for the stuff they want right now.

Measure 97 is a horrible tax proposal, for many reasons. It unfairly targets a small subset of all businesses directly, but hits all businesses and all of us indirectly. It taxes sales but not profits. It would be the largest tax increase in Oregon history.

But if voters ignore these concerns and approve it anyway because they think it will increase funding for schools, they are destined for bitter disappointment.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

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“The Rent Is Too Damn High!” — Why Rent Control Won’t Help

Once again, Portland led the nation this July with its home prices rising 12.4 percent year-over-year versus the national average of just 5.0 percent. As of April, Portland remained the 12th most expensive rental market in the nation. These numbers are not unrelated. Housing prices are often related to what units can be built for, whether they are single-family homes or multifamily apartment houses.

Whatever the causes of rising rents in Portland and elsewhere, the political fix bubbling to the surface not only won’t help most people afford housing, it likely will make the situation worse. That political fix goes by the name of rent control.

Last year, Willamette Week published an informative and entertaining piece entitled “The Five Myths About Portland Apartments.” In response to Myth 3, which is that rent control is the answer, Jerry Johnson of Portland real-estate consulting firm Johnson Economics noted:

“Rent control is an Econ 101-level policy disaster. If you happen to get one of the rent-controlled units, good for you. But it’s basically a lottery of who wins and who loses.”

Apparently unaware of the policy disaster that rent control forebodes, Oregon Speaker of the House Tina Kotek recently proposed allowing localities to enact their own rent control programs. She also wants to end so-called “no-cause” evictions and to ban rent increases above a “reasonable” percentage “for the foreseeable future.” In her prepared remarks she said, “Our housing crisis is a man-made emergency that demands bold action,” and, “We have privileged the right to make a profit on property far above the universal human right to safe and stable housing.”

Our housing crisis may very well be a man-made emergency. If so, the Speaker has misdiagnosed the cause, which has more to do with Oregon’s “man-made” restrictive land use laws than it does greedy landlords. And, the “bold action” she proposes likely will make the situation worse.

Economists of virtually every political stripe reject rent control as a viable way to improve housing affordability. They recognize what too few of our political leaders and voters recognize: namely, that controlling the price of a commodity, in this case rental housing, actually harms the very people the policy is designed to help. They know from economic theory and observation over many decades The High Cost of Rent Control. They know that it misallocates housing resources, heightens tensions between landlords and tenants, stifles private investment in affordable housing, and leads to deterioration and eventual abandonment of the very housing stock that middle- and lower-income tenants wanted it to protect for them at affordable prices.

Three local economists were quick to respond to Speaker Kotek’s suggestions:

“Rent control just sends us a couple hundred miles closer to San Francisco in terms of housing policy,” said Gerard Mildner, director of the Center for Real Estate at Portland State University.

“It’s almost textbook that any form of rent control ultimately harms consumers, as well as landlords,” said Eric Fruits, an economist and editor of Portland State University’s Center for Real Estate quarterly reports. “It may benefit some in the short term, but in the longer term, there will be fewer units available to rent, which will only make matters worse.” Instead, Fruits said, the free market should be allowed to work, with higher prices sending signals to developers that more units are needed.

“The demand for urban living is increasing and cities are not increasing the supply nearly fast enough,” Portland economist Joe Cortright said. “The only solution is to build new housing.”

As an Oregonian editorial then pointed out:

“Among other things, limiting rent growth dampens future investment in housing, inflates rents for unregulated units and discourages residents who secure rent-controlled units from moving, even when it’s in their best interest.”

In a lively discussion on social media following Speaker Kotek’s pronouncements, one person responded to her call for an end to “no-cause” evictions:

“No cause eviction benefits good tenants. When the bad guys move in, they threaten the good tenants who are afraid to testify about their behavior. The good tenants become prisoners in their apartments while the bad guys run wild. A landlord’s only defense is to become more restrictive on who they will rent to, therefore decreasing options for all renters.”

Even self-proclaimed “progressive” Portland city commissioner, Steve Novick, notes:

“…most economists say rent control has unintended consequences, including a decline in the production of new rental housing.”

While this is true, in “progressive” Portland and in the state Capitol economic laws are often trumped by political laws that make people feel better for a while, until economic reality rears its ugly head. Of course by then those who passed the laws have often moved on.

Accountability is rarely a part of the political process, which may be why it so often leads to unintended consequences that harm the very people the politicians were trying to help. Unfortunately, we may be destined to repeat this process again as rent control lurches onto the 2017 legislative agenda.


* Political activist and frequent candidate Jimmy McMillan memorably used “The Rent Is Too Damn High!” as his main campaign issue, slogan, and the name of his political party during his campaigns, including the 2010 New York gubernatorial election.

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Freedom in Film: Won’t Back Down (2012)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 3 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

Social problem films are not generally “feel-good” movies, in the sense that viewers feel comfortable with their feet up, eating popcorn, laughing with the heroes, and hoping for happily ever after. Won’t Back Down (2012) is a bit different. The film makes clear the near-impossibility of a desperate single mother getting her small daughter out of the worst public school in town; but it maintains a buoyant, upbeat vibe.

Here is what Cascade’s Steve Buckstein said about Won’t Back Down when it opened in theaters:

It’s not often that a Hollywood movie both entertains and helps parents learn about another option to improve their children’s education. The film Won’t Back Down…does both.

Inspired by actual events, it’s the story of a third-grade student trapped in a failing public school. Unable to afford a private education, her mother, played by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, learns about parent trigger laws, now the reality in seven states, which allow parents to take control of such schools and institute improvements.

Gyllenhaal enlists the help of a dedicated teacher in her daughter’s school, played by actress Viola Davis, to jump through the myriad of hoops put in their way. Together, they learn how to fight not only the bureaucracy, but the powerful teachers union, personified by actress Holly Hunter.

The film explores the complex relationships among good teachers, bad teachers, and a union whose leader once famously said he’d represent the interests of schoolchildren when they started paying union dues. Poor parents who want the best for their children are given a glimpse of the educational choices that those with political power are able to make.

Surprisingly, the good guys aren’t all good, and the bad guys aren’t all bad, in this multi-layered drama….

Won’t Back Down was criticized by some as “anti-union” or even “anti-teacher.” But it is actually a relatively gentle take on union/parent/teacher conflicts. The film takes extra care to present the concerns and fears of lifelong public school teachers and union members with sympathy and understanding. The characters are lovable, and the drama is human.

The takeaway can be summed up by the school board member who, casting the decisive vote, says….Well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out.

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Freedom in Film: Waiting for “Superman” (2010)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 2 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

The 2010 documentary film Waiting for “Superman” ignited new interest in the desperate desire of low-income parents to get their kids out of failing, one-size-fits-all public schools into better-performing charter schools. The five children poignantly profiled in the film faced barriers to their dreams in the form of too few charter school seats and a lottery acceptance process that made their futures dependent on a roll of the dice.

Charter schools have become a vital education option for thousands of students throughout the U.S. Moviegoers previously unfamiliar with charter schools (public schools with more freedom to be innovative than traditional district public schools) began to understand why parents―especially lower-income parents―want their kids so much to have a chance to attend charters.

Demand for charter schools far outstrips available seats, as Cascade’s 2011 study of Oregon charter school waiting lists found. Opening more charter schools is an important piece of the education reform puzzle. However, immediate, viable, successful alternatives to failing public schools have existed, often right in parents’ own neighborhoods, for decades. In much of the U.S., those options pre-date the American public school system itself.

Private and parochial schools have been a lifeline for low-income kids for generations, and today’s school choice movement seeks to maximize parents’ options for choosing the public, private, online, public charter, or home school that is the best fit for their children. Dozens of states and the District of Columbia have pioneered voucher programs, education tax credit laws, and Education Savings Accounts for parents. Private charity also plays a major role in helping children in need get a hand up early in life.

Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, may be the most flexible way for states to help children learn in the ways that are best for them. ESAs are not a college savings plan. Rather, if families decide the public schools to which their children are assigned are not meeting their needs, they can leave those schools and instead receive money from the state to pay for approved alternative education options and expenses. Parents can spend the funds on private school tuition, individual courses at public schools, tutoring, online learning, textbooks, educational therapies, and other education-related services and products. They can use a combination of these services based on what they think would best meet their child’s learning needs.

Reforming our public education system is necessary, but low-income kids can’t wait for Superman. When the 2017 Oregon legislative session begins in January, ask your state legislators to empower Oregon children to succeed in whatever education setting works for them by supporting an Education Savings Account law.

And if you haven’t seen it yet, this is a great week to watch Waiting for “Superman.”

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Freedom in Film: To Sir, with Love (1967)

With students everywhere heading to class, we hope you enjoy Part 1 of Cascade’s “virtual” back-to-school School Choice Film Fest.

Nearing the end of his patience, a first-year teacher challenges his scarcely literate students to think seriously about the lives ahead of them. What will happen after high school graduation? One academically indifferent girl supposes she’ll get married, giggling that “everybody gets married.”

Such comfortable assumptions have disappeared since 1967; much else about the lives and troubles of at-risk teenagers hasn’t.

To Sir, with Love stars Sidney Poitier as Mark Thackeray, an engineer who takes a temporary teaching job. The kids are rough, uninterested in school, and oblivious to the possibility that they could become more than they are. The gentlemanly Mr. Thackeray, called “Sir” by his students, is as much a culture shock to them as they are to him.

To Sir, with Love is like a time capsule of the late 1960s: Sentimental optimism contrasts with the grittiness of poverty, illiteracy, teenage rebellion, and rapid social change. There is a sense that Mr. Thackeray’s class is careening wildly toward dead-end or delinquent adulthoods, and he has a few short weeks to reach at least some of his students before they are lost. His greatest asset as a teacher, though, has nothing to do with cutting-edge curriculum or teaching “best practices.”

It is culture. “Sir” is a living example of another world which his students could choose to enter, if only they could see themselves in it. Through him they experience, for the first time, what it is to have dignity. As the teenagers begin to awaken to their own self-worth, they start to grasp why people have manners, respect others, and behave in ways that draw respect in turn. They take interest in the written word and the process of intellectual inquiry.

Education is more than transmission of facts; it’s an invitation to explore the world of the soul, of human creative capacity, and of the physical universe. When students get in touch with their own dignity as human beings, they grasp the meaning of learning. They no longer mark time until school is out; they transform as students and as people.

Great teachers help students discover the grandeur of human existence, potential, and achievement and that they are made for more than superficial pleasures and “easy outs.” To Sir, with Love shows what can happen when the right adult comes into a teenager’s life at the right time―and why that’s so important.

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