Let Parents Wield School Spending Power

By Kathryn Hickok

Are we missing the trees for the forest in Oregon school funding and education reform debates?

Media reports, school districts, and political leaders usually focus on the big picture: reaching a 100% high school graduation rate so all children have the best chance in life. That’s a great goal. Frequently lost, however, is the fact that every child is an individual. The focus of real-life Oregon parents is helping their kids reach their potential in light of their specific needs and gifts.

These two perspectives shouldn’t be at odds. In fact, the second could drive the first―if more parents were empowered to make meaningful choices for their children’s education.

According to the National Education Association’s Rankings and Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, counting local, state, and federal funding, current expenditures per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance are estimated to be $13,230, more than 33 other states. Adding in spending for capital outlays and interest payments, that number increases to $14,911 per student.

Yet, the National Association of Education Progress reports that only 34% of Oregon fourth-graders tested “proficient” in reading in 2015; and Oregon has the third-worst high school graduation rate in the country.

No one disputes the need for improvements to public schools. But children who need help today—first to learn the basics (like reading and math) and then to graduate from high school—should get the help they need now. What we ought to do is give Oregon students the power of choice to find their own paths to success.

For lower-income parents, the stakes are high. Nearly half the children born into poverty will stay in poverty as adults. Key to changing that outcome is an education that leads to high school graduation and future employment. Unlike parents with greater means, who can move to another neighborhood or pay out-of-pocket for private schools, lower-income parents often find their children trapped in public schools that do not meet their kids’ needs. Education Savings Accounts could change that.

Six years ago, Arizona became the first state to pass an Education Savings Account (ESA) law for some K-12 students, and it recently expanded eligibility to eventually include all Arizona children. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee also have ESA programs limited to certain students, such as those with special needs.

An ESA is analogous to a limited-use debit card for qualifying education expenses. It gives parents who want to opt out of a public school a portion of the per-student state funding to spend on their child’s education in other ways. ESAs can fund a wide variety of education-related expenses, including tuition, tutoring, and supplemental materials. Money not used in one year can be rolled over for future education expenses, even college.

But if ESAs let parents spend education funds outside the public school system, would ESAs drain money from public schools? Not necessarily. Schools are funded by local, state, and federal money. ESAs would be funded by only part of the state component. The amount of the ESA deposits is negotiable and would be the biggest driver of their fiscal impact.

Legislators can design an ESA program so that it would be revenue neutral to public schools, or even create a net increase per student who remained in the system. If students leaving public schools took less funding with them than would have been spent if they had remained, schools could reduce their class sizes without a negative impact on per-student funding.

No one can craft a school system that meets every child’s needs. Statistical data analysis and bureaucratic goal-setting can’t ensure that any particular child makes it to high school graduation or excels in a career. But most parents are keenly aware of their own children’s needs. Giving parents power to find the right fit for their kids would make a world of difference, as any parent knows.

Focusing on the forest (the public school system), Oregon is missing the trees (kids). We should expand the role of parents in achieving better educational outcomes for their children. We’ve tried everything else. Parental choice is the future of education reform, and Education Savings Accounts are a fiscally responsible policy solution that can give all kids options now.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also Director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides privately funded, partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 18, 2017.

Are Smartphones in Class a Problem or an Opportunity?

By Steve Buckstein

To hear some teachers talk, you would think before smartphones became ubiquitous in their classrooms that every student sat politely and paid attention every minute of the day. Of course, anyone who was ever a student knows the messy truth about this assertion. So, a little perspective may be in order, both about the evolution of the telephone and what should be the evolution of our educational system.

It wasn’t too long ago that if our parents or grandparents wanted to make a phone call from home, they would pick up the receiver and ask the monopoly “phone company” operator to place their calls. Later, how glorious it was that we could use our rotary phones to spin out our own calls, even long-distance ones if we could afford the high per-minute costs. Then came digital phones, and finally cell phones became affordable to the masses. But even the early cell phones had limited uses.

You may not remember, but none of us had any cell phone apps before 2008, because there weren’t any. None. Imagine: All you could do on your cell phone before 2008 was make calls, maybe text, and maybe connect to the World Wide Web on a slow Internet connection.
Just nine years later, more than two billion people worldwide use apps on their smartphones. You may have dozens of apps on your phone today and, even if you only use a handful of them regularly, that’s a world away from what it was like before 2008. Lots of things are a world away from what they were like before 2008—except for public education.

Consider the children in our schools today. Many of them have never known a world without smartphones and their apps. Rotary telephones, even landlines, are likely just historical oddities to them. Much of their world is new, except the way we adults try to educate them. First, we assign them to a school based on their ZIP code; then we sit them down in rows, in a classroom with kids their same age, all in front of one teacher lecturing about some subject they may or may not find interesting and relevant to their lives.

We say that we want our kids to learn how to take advantage of technology, take STEM courses, and be prepared for the new careers awaiting them. So why do we see their use of that technology every day in school as a problem? They’re not paying attention to the teacher! They’re watching their screens instead of sitting politely in rows listening to the math lesson at 10 am, or the history lesson at 2 pm. The very technology that we want them to be able to use in their careers is enabling them to tune out the lessons we think they need to learn now before entering those careers.

We know that they’ll likely find value in many of these subjects later in life; but if they can’t learn those lessons in ways that are relevant to them now, they may never learn them at all; or they may learn them too late to avoid painful life experiences between now and then.

As the nation’s largest teachers union recently documented, taxpayers pay nearly $15,000 every year for all the costs associated with each student attending Oregon public schools—more than in 33 other states. Rather than let a smartphone costing a few hundred dollars get in the way of any student’s $15,000 education, we need to find ways to let it supplement or enhance their learning experience.

As one high school teacher put it in an Atlantic magazine article on this subject last year,

“If educators do not find ways to leverage mobile technology in all learning environments, for all students, then we are failing our kids by not adequately preparing them to make the connection between their world outside of school and their world inside school.”

One systemic way to think about how smartphone technology can enhance learning is through Education Savings Accounts. Unlike school vouchers that act more like the rotary telephones of the school choice world, ESAs act more like the smartphones of that world, complete with countless apps that can help students learn virtually any subject, often at a fraction of the cost associated with traditional brick and mortar schools.*

While vouchers only let parents pay for private school tuition, ESA funds may also be used for other approved educational expenses, such as online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other customized learning services and materials.

Also, while voucher funds all go to private school tuition or are lost to the families, funds remaining in ESA accounts each year may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college. This creates incentives for families to “shop” for the best educational experiences at the lowest cost, as well as incentives for schools and educational programs to price their services as low as possible, not as high as possible as might be done under a voucher program.

The bottom line is that, while smartphones in school can be a distraction, they can also pave the way to better, more efficient use of educational resources. It is up to us as adults to harness their power for good instead of just bemoaning their power to distract.


* To see how Oregon’s former State Treasurer sees smartphones undercutting the entire economic model of higher education (and by inference K-12 education), watch this 59-second video.


Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This Commentary is adapted from a portion of the author’s written and oral testimony at the Oregon State Senate Education Committee’s Informational Hearing on Education Savings Account bill SB 437 on June 13, 2017.

 

Who says Oregon pays public school teachers more than other states? The National Education Association, that’s who!

By Steve Buckstein

As Oregon legislators wrestle with how much money to spend on public education, advocates claim that we spend too little compared to other states. They demand that legislators spend more, and raise taxes to do it. But, according to the nation’s largest teachers union, the reality is quite different.

As I noted recently, in its Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, the National Education Association says that Oregon spends more per student than 33 other states: $13,320 per Average Daily Attendee versus $12,572 nationally.

Another interesting finding in the NEA report is how much Oregon pays its public school teachers. In 2015-16 it shows the average teacher salary in the country was $58,343, compared to $60,459 here in Oregon. We spend three percent more on teacher salaries than the national average.*

But, the report also shows that our per capita personal income is nine percent less than the national average: $48,783 versus $43,783.

So, while we pay our teachers three percent more, we do that out of incomes that are nine percent less than the average American. Add those two numbers together, and it’s clear that based on our ability to pay we compensate Oregon teachers very well.

All this data add weight to the argument that we don’t need new taxes to better fund public education. We fund it very well already.


*“Where applicable, ‘average teacher salary’ includes the contract amount plus 6 percent for the employer portion of retirement contributions.” Page 146 of the NEA report.


Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Testimony in Favor of SB 437 – The Educational Opportunity Act: “The Power of Choice”

By Kathryn Hickok

Director, Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon

Dear Chairman Roblan and Members of the Senate Education Committee:

My name is Kathryn Hickok, and I am director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon. For almost twenty years our nonprofit program has provided privately funded partial-tuition elementary scholarships to children from lower-income Oregon families. As CSF-Portland, we originally served Washington, Multnomah, and Clackamas counties. Our program area now includes the entire state of Oregon. We are currently sponsoring students from Beaverton to Bend and Albany to Medford.

The Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon is a permanent program of Cascade Policy Institute and part of the Children’s Scholarship Fund national network of scholarship granting organizations (www.scholarshipfund.org). CSF and its partner programs are committed to empowering families in need with the ability to choose the K-8 schools that best meet their children’s needs, regardless of their ability to pay or the neighborhoods where they live. To be eligible for a scholarship, families must demonstrate financial need according to standards similar to the Federal free and reduced price lunch program. Our scholarships are financed through the generosity of local Oregon donors and matching grants from the national Children’s Scholarship Fund.

Our experience with the educational choices made by the lower-income Oregon families participating in our program demonstrates several key points relevant to this bill:

First, lower-income parents want to take charge of their children’s futures through educational opportunity; and when they are given a real choice, they do so. While their financial means are limited, our parents are knowledgeable about their options and determined to make any sacrifice to raise their children to be well-educated, responsible, and successful adults. Parents in our program value high-quality education as the way out of poverty for their children and make the commitment and sacrifice of paying a substantial portion of their tuition themselves.

Second, demand for broader educational opportunities in Oregon is real. When our program began in 1999, the parents of more than 6,000 children applied for only 550 available scholarships. Weekly, parents call and email me because they want to find the right educational fit for their children. It could be a specialized program or school tailored to their learning or physical needs, or they could be looking for educational opportunities not available in the public school assigned to them by their home address. Senate Bill 437 would give Oregon families greater power to choose among the broad range of educational choices and learning opportunities currently available, or available in the future, using money the state already allocates for their children’s education.

Third, it does not take a lot of money to change a child’s life. Our scholarships average about $1,500. That small amount can make the difference in allowing children to attend schools they love, that motivate them to do their best, and that foster their individual talents. Education Savings Accounts would make an even greater, empowering difference for parents in where they send their children to school and how they tailor their kids’ entire educational experience to their unique needs and talents.

The benefits of an Education Savings Account program for Oregon families are not theoretical for us. As a charitable scholarship program, CSF-Oregon helps parents to choose the schools best suited to their children’s needs. This bill extends educational options to more children in our communities. It will make a real and immediate difference in thousands of lives, just when they need it the most.

Respectfully,

Kathryn Hickok

Director

Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon

Education Savings Account Informational Hearing Testimony in Favor of SB 437

Before the Senate Education Committee

By Steve Buckstein
Cascade Policy Institute

Chair Roblan and members of the Committee, my name is Steve Buckstein. I’m Senior Policy Analyst and Founder at Cascade Policy Institute, a public policy research organization based in Portland.

I want to share some thoughts about the value of Education Savings Accounts in general, and SB 437 in particular, which we’ve branded the Educational Opportunity Act: The Power of Choice.

Next, Professor Eric Fruits will briefly discuss the Fiscal Impacts of the bill.

Finally, you’ll hear from Oregon’s 2012 Mother of the Year, Bobbie Jager, about the importance of providing different educational options for different children.

School Choice programs allow students to choose schools or other educational resources and pay for them with a portion of the tax funding that otherwise would go to the public school assigned to them by their ZIP code.

While school choice is popular with large segments of the public, opponents worry that specific programs like vouchers or Education Savings Accounts may drain funds from the public school system.*

What these concerns overlook is that public funding for K-12 education should actually help educate students, not simply fund schools whether or not they meet specific student needs.

The latest and most versatile school choice programs being enacted across the country are Education Savings Accounts. Unlike vouchers, which only let parents pay for private school tuition, ESA funds may also be used for other approved educational expenses, such as online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other customized learning services and materials.

Also, while voucher funds all go to private school tuition or are lost to the families, funds remaining in ESA accounts each year may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college. This creates incentives for families to “shop” for the best educational experiences at the lowest cost, as well as incentives for schools and educational programs to price their services as low as possible, not as high as possible as might be done under a voucher program.

Five states already have limited ESA programs. Nevada passed a near-universal ESA program in 2015, but its legislature has yet to fund it. In November 2015 your Committee heard from the author of that bill, 16-year public school teacher and state senator Scott Hammond. He told you that he viewed vouchers as the rotary telephones of the school choice world, and that ESAs are the smartphones of that world.

Vouchers just let parents choose a different school, but ESAs offer the equivalent of apps on your smartphone. You can use ESA funds for tuition at a private school, to pay for online courses, pay for tutors, pay for a Sylvan Learning type program, and/or pay for other approved educational options. A student is free to spend part-time at their local public school, and the rest of the time making other educational choices with the proportional share of their ESA funding.

In 2008, Cascade Policy Institute sponsored a School Choice Video Contest in which we asked parents and students to tell us what school choice meant to them. I want to show you one of my favorite entries. It’s from a 15-year-old homeschooled student in Southern Oregon.

[Shoes video]

If the Shoe Fits, Wear It! This legislature is about to allocate at least $8.2 billion taxpayer dollars to an education budget that may, in effect, fund shoes that aren’t a good fit for many of our children. ESAs would help some of those families find better-fitting shoes for their kids.

In addition to funding concerns, some critics of ESAs argue that they violate the principle of church/state separation. In Oregon, they might think that SB 437 violates Article 1, section 5 in our state constitution, which basically prevents the state from spending money for the benefit of any religious institution.

But it won’t! The public interest law firm Institute for Justice has studied the bill and concluded that it doesn’t violate either the Oregon or the U.S. Constitution. You have their complete legal analysis on OLIS.

Briefly, at the federal level, the 2002 Zelman Case before the Supreme Court found that as long as it’s the parents, not the state, deciding where a school choice program’s funds go, it doesn’t matter if the parents choose religious schools because it’s the parents, not the state, making those choices.

At least two state supreme courts, in Arizona and Nevada, have found the same thing with regard to ESAs and those state constitutional provisions, which are similar to Oregon’s so-called Blaine Amendment.

Now, let me give you a feel for how much more flexibility ESAs offer over the old voucher plans, and why they’ve sprung up so recently.

It wasn’t too long ago that if our parents or grandparents wanted to make a phone call they would pick up the receiver and ask a phone company operator to place their calls. Later, how glorious it was that we could use our rotary phones to spin out our own calls, even long-distance ones if we could afford the high per-minute costs. Then came digital phones, and finally cell phones became affordable to the masses. But even the early cell phones had limited uses.

You may not remember, but none of us had any cell phone apps before 2008, because there weren’t any. None. Imagine: All you could do on your cell phones before 2008 was make phone calls, maybe text, and maybe connect to the World Wide Web on a slow internet connection.

Just nine years later, over 2 billion people worldwide use apps on their smartphones. You may have dozens of apps on your phone today, and even if you only use a handful of them regularly, that’s a world away from what it was like before 2008. Lots of things are a world away from what they were like before 2008 — except for public education.

Consider the children in our schools today. Many of them have never known a world without smartphones and their apps. Rotary telephones, even landlines, are likely just historical oddities to them. Much of their world is new, except the way we adults try to educate them by sitting them down in rows, in a classroom with kids who are the same age, all in front of one teacher lecturing about some subject they may or may not find interesting and relevant to their lives.

Yet, many teachers see kids’ smartphones as a problem, right? They’re watching their screens instead of sitting politely in rows listening to the math lesson at 10, or the history lesson at 2.

We say that we want our kids to learn how to take advantage of technology, take STEM courses, and be prepared for the new careers awaiting them. So why do we see their use of that technology every day as a problem! They’re not paying attention to the teacher! They’re bored with school. The Shoes we make them wear aren’t good fits for many of them.

We know that they’ll likely find value in many of these subjects later in life, but if they can’t learn those lessons in ways that are relevant to them now, they may never learn them at all; or they may learn them too late to avoid painful life experiences between now and then.

In 2007, the House Subcommittee on Education Innovation, chaired by Representative Betty Komp, heard compelling testimony about some of those kids during a hearing on an earlier school choice bill, HB 2010. It was given by Black Portlander Jomo Greenidge, who describes himself as an educator and technologist.

Jomo can’t be here to talk with you today, but he hopes you’ll watch his earlier testimony and think about how Education Savings Accounts could help kids like these today.

[Jomo Greenidge video testimony]

Since Jomo gave that testimony in 2007, smartphone apps emerged, followed by Education Savings Accounts, which act much like smartphones of the school choice world. Many students in our schools today, and all the kids entering our schools tomorrow, will grow up in a world with modern communication and app technology.

It’s time we recognize that much of the money we tax and spend on their educations might not be meeting their educational needs. It’s time that we consider the Education Savings Account approach to let their families have some control over how that money is spent so it better meets their needs.

Other states have debated, and some are adopting, ESA programs this year. The pressure to pass more such bills will only grow.

We know that SB 437 won’t pass this year. While we’re thankful for this Informational Hearing, many Oregon families want more. Many Oregon families can’t wait for years to get their kids into better fitting Educational Shoes.

We can debate the details, but please take this issue seriously and help these families by passing an ESA bill soon, hopefully in the 2018 session.

Thank you.


* A 2009 scientific survey showed us that 87 percent of Oregon families with school-aged children want the ability to choose other than their local public school. And the results were similar for Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. So why do some 90 percent of them still send their kids to their local public school? You know why. It’s because they can’t afford to pay federal, state, and local taxes to fund that local school and pay for private school tuition at the same time. ESAs will give them the financial ability to make some other choices if they want to.

And, if 20 percent of Portland public school teachers send their kids to private schools, why would we think that 20 percent of their neighbors might not want to do the same, if they could afford it?

Based on data from the 2000 US Census, a report was published looking at where public school teachers sent their own kids to school in the nation’s 50 largest cities. It found that public school teachers send their own kids to private schools at much higher rates than their neighbors.

In Portland, 12.7 percent of parents sent their kids to private schools, but 20 percent of public school teachers who lived in Portland sent their kids to private schools. Doing some basic grade school math shows that teachers in the largest cities were 23 percent more likely to send their children to private schools, but in Portland they were 57 percent more likely to do so.

So, will SB 437 bill drain funds from public schools, or will it leave them harmless while allowing many students to make different choices? The answers depend on several assumptions which have now been evaluated by Eric Fruits, Ph.D. in a new review and evaluation of a universal ESA program for Oregon. The amount of the ESA deposits is the biggest driver of fiscal impacts.

As introduced, SB 437 would provide participating students with disabilities and in low-income households $8,781 per year (current state funding) in their ESAs. All other participating students would receive $7,903 (90% of current state funding). As Introduced, based on the assumptions below, the Fiscal Impact on the state and local school districts could be in the range of $200 million annually based on the following assumptions:

■ 90 percent of 61,000 students currently enrolled in non-public education would participate in the program.

■ Seven percent of 563,000 students currently enrolled in public schools would participate.

Based on these assumptions, the program has a fiscal “break even” for state and local school districts combined at an ESA annual amount of $6,000 for each participating student with disabilities and/or in a low-income household and $4,500 for all other students.

These are the dollar amounts proposed in the -1 Amendment to the bill. If fiscal impact were the only measure by which to evaluate this ESA program, the analysis shows that the program is “optimized” at an amount of $3,000 for each participating student with disabilities and/or in a low-income household and $2,250 for all other students. Once fully implemented, the program would save state and local governments $53 million a year.

Of course, fiscal impact is not and should not be the primary measure of this, or any well-designed school choice program. But, it is a political reality that such a program should not impose a fiscal burden on the state at a time that all budgets are under pressure.

The primary measure of this ESA program should be that it offers Oregon families as much choice as possible in how their children take advantage of educational opportunities funded by the state. The full report is here: Education Savings Accounts: Review and Evaluation of a Universal ESA in Oregon

Testimony on SB 847 Regarding Management of Common School Trust Lands

Testimony of John A. Charles, Jr.

President and CEO, Cascade Policy Institute 

Regarding SB 847

June 5, 2017

My name is John Charles and I have been closely following the management of Common School Trust Lands since 1996.

Sadly, the Trust Lands have been steadily losing value as an endowment asset during that entire period. For example, the Elliott State Forest was estimated to be worth over $800 million in 1995; it is currently a liability for the Common School Trust Fund.

The 620,000 acres of rangelands had net operating income of -$1.2 million in 2016.

SB 847 offers a pathway for the disposal of underperforming lands, but it’s difficult to see how a proposed transfer to other public bodies would be compliant with the fiduciary duty that Land Board members have to CSF beneficiaries.

Funds that the legislature might appropriate to “buy out” Trust Lands have to be paid by taxpayers. A large subset of that group will include beneficiaries of the CSF, including public school parents, school board members, public school teachers, and other school employees. Taxing them with debt service on bonds, as is now being proposed by the Governor for the Elliott, would be taking money away from them.

The Trust Land portfolio includes 1,540,000 acres of lands, as displayed in the attached summary from the most recent DSL status report. The estimated return on asset value for 2016 was 0.4%, which is an inflated number due the unknown market value of 767,100 acres of “Mineral and Energy Resource” lands and 13,200 acres of “Special Stewardship Lands.” They have minimal value to the CSF as an endowment asset, and that will not change.

The only way to carry out the fiduciary duty to CSF beneficiaries is to inject new, private capital into the picture. The state should sell the remaining Trust Lands – which could be worth more than $700 million — and invest the net proceeds in the Common School Fund, where annual total returns of 5%-8% could be expected for centuries to come.

[Click Download the PDF to view exhibits]

Testimony in Opposition to HB 2720 A Regarding Virtual Charter Schools

By Steve Buckstein

Co-Chairs Monroe and Smith Warner and members of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Education:

I’m Steve Buckstein, Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a public policy research center based in Portland. I’m writing in opposition to HB 2720 A which would require the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to conduct a study on virtual public charter schools.

My major points of opposition second those of Dr. David Gray, Executive Director of the Metro East Web Academy. He “…served in traditional public education for over 30 years as a state department executive, superintendent, assistant superintendent, National Blue Ribbon School Principal, and a state and nationally recognized teacher.”  In his written testimony submitted on March 3rd he stated, in part:

“I share your passion for public education. Unfortunately, the traditional education system is broken….Traditional systems are effective for some students but not all and many of those succeed in spite of the good intentions of professional educators This is why we must not limit options for students.

“Although HB 2720’s purpose seems innocuous as some would perceive it to just be a study; it is actually one more study to examine a system of virtual schools that have been studied over and over throughout the United States. In fact, the study purports to use the same data points that are readily available on the ODE website, which will undoubtedly include metrics such as graduation rates, state assessment results, and attendance data. I can not think of a bigger waste of taxpayer dollars, especially in a year when resources are scarce and legislators are scrambling to create an adequate educational budget.

“Ultimately, if it is important to study virtual schools – why don’t we do a study on all of our high schools to determine why students are leaving traditional high schools and coming to charter schools? Why are there so many at-risk students? Do traditional brick and mortar schools add value to a student’s education? Do we know the answers to these questions?” [emphasis added]

In light of these well-stated concerns, HB 2720 A seems a costly distraction that could keep the legislature, ODE and all Oregonians from focusing on the real problems facing our public education system.

I urge you to oppose HB 2720 A.

Thank you,

Steve Buckstein
Senior Policy Analyst and Founder

Oregon Legislature Should Give Kids a “Ticket to the Future” Today

By Kathryn Hickok and Steve Buckstein

Derrell Bradford has spent his adult life passionately advocating for education reform through parental choice. Bradford grew up in poverty in southwest Baltimore and received a scholarship that allowed him to attend a private high school, preparing him for college and a successful career. Better than anyone, he knows the power of educational choice to unleash a child’s potential.

“A scholarship is not a five-year plan or a Power Point…,” Bradford explained recently. “It’s a ticket to the future, granted today, for a child trying to shape his or her own destiny in the here and now….”

Choices in education are widespread in America, unless you are poor. Affluent families can move to different neighborhoods, send their children to private schools, and supplement schooling with enrichment opportunities. Lower- and middle-income families, however, are too often trapped with one option: a school in need of improvement assigned to them based on their ZIP Codes. Families deserve better.

Six years ago, Arizona became the first state to pass an Education Savings Account (ESA) law for some K-12 students. In April, lawmakers there passed a new ESA bill which expands the program eligibility to eventually include all Arizona children. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee also have ESA programs limited to certain students, such as those with special needs. Nevada also passed a near-universal ESA bill, but it is yet to be funded.

An Education Savings Account is analogous to a debit card for qualifying education expenses. It gives parents who want to opt out of a public school that is not meeting their child’s needs a portion of the per-student state funding to spend on their child’s education in other ways.

Now, Oregon has a chance to put parents in the educational “driver’s seat” with Senate Bill 437, known as the “Educational Opportunity Act: The Power of Choice.” This bill would allow parents to spend a portion of the per-student state funding for their child on the schools or education services that are best for them as individuals. Options could include private or home schools, tutors, online courses, and therapy. Funds not used by the student in a given year could be rolled over for future years, even into college.

Critics might ask if this bill would drain funds from public schools, or would it leave them harmless while allowing many students to make different choices? The answers depend on several assumptions which have been evaluated in a new review of a universal Oregon ESA program.

The amount of the ESA deposits is the biggest driver of fiscal impacts. Based on the assumptions in the study, the program would have a fiscal “break even” for state and local school districts combined at an annual ESA amount of $6,000 for each participating student with disabilities and/or in a low-income household and $4,500 for all other students. These are the dollar amounts proposed in an Amendment to the bill and represent a reduction from the current state allocation which averages $8,781 for all students.

Of course, fiscal impact is not and should not be the primary measure of this or any well-designed school choice program. But it is a political reality that such a program should not impose a fiscal burden on the state at a time when all budgets are under pressure. SB 437 would offer Oregon families as much choice as possible in how their children take advantage of educational opportunities funded by the state, while not harming public schools.

The Senate Education Committee will hold an informational hearing on SB 437 on Tuesday, June 13, at 3 pm at the Oregon State Capitol. You can make a statement in favor of school choice by attending the hearing and/or submitting written testimony on the bill.

Children have different needs and learn in different ways. The landscape of educational options available to meet those needs is more diverse today than ever. Education Savings Accounts for Oregon parents are a life-changing education solution whose time has come. Families have had enough five-year-plans and Power Points, as Derrell Bradford put it. To give Oregon kids a ticket to the future—today—the Legislature should enact Senate Bill 437.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Steve Buckstein is Cascade’s Senior Policy Analyst and Founder. A version of this article originally appeared in The Portland Tribune on May 25, 2017.

Who says Oregon spends $13,230 per public school student? The National Education Association, that’s who!

By Steve Buckstein

Ever since Oregon’s property tax limitation Measure 5 shifted the bulk of education funding from local sources to the state general fund in 1990, public education advocates have claimed that our schools are severely underfunded, spending less than most other states. They want the legislature to raise taxes now to rectify this supposed crisis.

Ask a knowledgeable Oregonian how much money is spent per student in our public schools and they might say the number is about $8,781, which is what the state currently gives school districts per student.

But, ask the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, and you’ll get a much different answer. According to the NEA’s just-released Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, when you count local, state, and federal funding, current expenditures per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance are estimated to be $13,230. That puts us five percent above the national average of $12,572. Oregon spends more than 33 other states.*

Add in spending for capital outlays and interest payments, and that $13,230 number goes up to total expenditures per student of $14,911.**

Even at the lower number, public schools spend over $396,000 a year for each 30-student classroom. Subtract the average teacher salary plus benefits of some $85,000, and Oregonians should ask where the additional $300,000-plus is going before even thinking about raising taxes on anyone.


* There are several ways to calculate current expenditures per student. The NEA computes two of those ways in this report. Definitions are given in the report Glossary. Oregon’s 2017 Average Daily Attendance (ADA) of pupils “under the guidance and direction of teachers” is estimated in Table I-3 to be 531,434. Oregon’s 2017 Fall Enrollment of pupils registered in the fall of the 2017 school year is estimated in Table I-6 to be 578,176. Because there are more pupils registered in school districts than actually in class on an average day, current expenditures per ADA of $13,230 (Table J-9) is higher than current expenditures per Fall Enrollment, which is $12,161 (Table J-10). Oregon spends more than 33 other states under both these methods.

** Under the two ways of calculating expenditures per student explained above, the author’s calculation of estimated 2017 total expenditures based on Average Daily Attendance of $14,911 is higher than that based on estimated Fall Enrollment, which is $13,705.


Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Education Savings Accounts Treat Kids Like the Individuals They Are

By Kathryn Hickok

Six years ago, Arizona became the first state to pass an Education Savings Account law for some K-12 students. In April, lawmakers there passed a new ESA bill which expands the program eligibility to include all Arizona children. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee also have ESA programs limited to certain students, such as those with special needs. Nevada also passed a near-universal ESA bill, but it is yet to be funded.

Education Savings Accounts put parents in the educational “driver’s seat.” An ESA is analogous to a debit card for qualifying education expenses. It gives parents who want to opt out of a public school that is not meeting their child’s needs a portion of the per-student state funding for spending on their child’s education in other ways. Funds not used by the student in a given year can be rolled over for future years.

To really empower Oregon families, the Legislature should enact Senate Bill 437. This ESA bill would allow parents to choose the education that meets their child’s needs, such as private or home schools, tutors, online courses, and therapy.

Children learn in different ways, and the landscape of educational options is more diverse today than ever. Education Savings Accounts for Oregon parents are a life-changing education solution whose time has come.


The Senate Education Committee will hold an informational hearing on SB 437 on Tuesday, June 13, from 3-5 pm at the Oregon State Capitol. You can make a statement in favor of school choice by attending the hearing and/or submitting written testimony on the bill.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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