Three Strikes and You’re Out: Replacing Top-Down Education Control with School Choice

In his recent State of the State address, Governor John Kitzhaber argued that legislators must “lock in” his education system changes so they then can move on to other important issues such as tax reform and public safety.

Notice that he did not mention the last two big educational changes he helped “lock in.” Both the 1991 Education Act for the Twenty-First Century (CIM and CAM) and the 1999 Quality Education Model arguably failed to deliver on their grand promises. Now we have the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB), headed by the Governor, which promises to centralize education policy more than either of the two big past reform efforts. This is the perfect time to consider applying the “three strikes and you’re out” concept to public policy.

The fatal flaw in all these reform efforts is that they rely on really “smart” people centralizing control over educational policy and decision making. The first two efforts concentrated on Kindergarten through high school. Apparently, their failure led the Governor to conclude that they simply didn’t control a broad enough swath of the education spectrum to work. So now, his latest effort seeks to control everything from pre-Kindergarten through graduate school.

As I discussed in Forced Participation: Public Education’s Fatal Flaw (June 2010) and The Oregon Education Investment Board: Top Down on Steroids (December 2011), centralizing control over education policy and forcing students to attend schools chosen for them by others are destined to fail because they fly in the face of one of America’s most cherished values: choice. Parents don’t appreciate politicians, bureaucrats, or experts making decisions for them about what is best for their children. Advise? Sure. Command? No way.

Rather than wait years to judge the latest big reform a failure, it is time to try another path: the school choice path. The Governor should be amenable to such a path since he signed the initial charter school law in 1999 and three limited school choice bills in 2011. What he needs to realize, however, is that such a path is in conflict with his command-and-control efforts. He needs to make a choice – and allow parents and students many more educational choices.

To see the flaw in the command-and-control approach, consider an example I have used before. Consider what our world would be like if the government owned our grocery stores:

We can only shop at the store nearest our house, unless we can afford to move into another neighborhood. We elect food boards to oversee our grocery stores. We pay through taxes, not directly, so few notice that the government spends eight dollars for a gallon of milk and six dollars for a loaf of bread. We do notice that the bread is sometimes stale, and the milk is sometimes sour. But we get no guarantees, and we certainly get no refunds. Each food district has a central office staff working hard to design store shelves, checkout lanes, and the nutritional content of each food item.

Now, imagine voters approving less money for the public food system than its employees demand. Suddenly, stores can’t keep all the clerks employed. Food Superintendents are faced with the difficult task of eliminating some items from the shelves.

Customers are angry when stores stop offering extras like cookies and candy. Until taxpayers give food stores more money, only nutritious staples will be available, and checkout lines will be longer. How could we feed ourselves without government taxing us, building big brick food buildings, and telling us where to shop?

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re way ahead of me. It’s the world of our public school system. It’s the world most of us grew up in. Future generations deserve to grow up in a better world, where we no longer dump money into a system that celebrates the status quo and operates more for the adults that make their living in it than for the students.

Why not worry about a tax revolt decimating our grocery stores? Because they are privately owned, yet serve the public. They’re subject to intense competition, and each of us has virtually unlimited shopping choices. For those who can’t afford food, we don’t build government food stores. We give them food stamps, and they shop in the same stores and for the same products as the rest of us.

Our public schools are the equivalent of the former Soviet Union’s collective farms. Communism said government should own and run the food stores – and the farms. The result was a nation that couldn’t feed itself. To avoid becoming a nation that cannot educate itself, we need to let education dollars be spent where consumers think they should go. We need to find ways to put the children first, the system second.

School choice opponents want us to wait to see if the Governor’s latest centralized approach will eventually improve public schools. But we’ve seen what centralized control does to education already. Waiting longer won’t help struggling students today.

When public schools fail students, they often demand more money to make improvements. Imagine if grocery stores acted that way; you return a stale loaf of bread and the store charges you more so it can try better next time. That’s unacceptable for grocery stores, and it should be unacceptable for schools.

In a school choice world, if the school fails students it doesn’t get more money, it gets less as students leave and take their allocated money with them to other schools. This is the world that finally will put students first. Before the Governor’s third strike takes a further toll on students, let’s encourage him and the legislature to take another path – the school choice path.

Control Cometh Before the Fall of Education

The desire to be in charge is as human as pride. It’s easy to see it in others. We scoff at arrogant, controlling dictators. We criticize parents who use guilt to influence their grown-up children. We commiserate about friends who manipulate others to get what they want.

Yet, when it comes to politics, we tend to think our leaders must have some unusually evil intention when they pass laws that conflict with our values. But politicians are just people. The consequences of their human defects, because of their position and power, just reach farther.

People often try to control others because they think they know what’s best. Their intentions feel like love, though they may really be driven by fear or distrust. Similarly, most individuals in power whom I’ve gotten to know genuinely feel that by controlling others they are helping people and making the world better. It’s a proud presumption, as familiar as that feeling of superiority we all experience when passing judgment on others for their choices.

The presumption says: “I can make better choices for you than you can make for yourself.” Whether or not that is true, only the government―not overbearing relatives or unpleasant friends―truly has the power to enforce its choices. And nowhere are issues of government control more contentious―and the consequences far-reaching―than in children’s education.

Education policy affects every child, and all sides of the debate trumpet kids’ interests as the heart behind their cause. And most sides believe it. With parents, the argument tends to orbit around values, that is, whose values should be taught in public schools. This struggle to decide whose values should be taught can be seen in states as different as Texas and California.

Rather than controlling how others’ children should be taught, those decisions should be removed from the political realm and returned where they belong―with the family. Each parent should be able to choose a school that offers the kind of education they want for their kids. That is the beauty of “school choice.”

Arguments for school choice usually focus on how empowering parents through education scholarships or vouchers, tax credits, and digital learning programs create scientifically proven gains in math, science, and reading. But its most virtuous effect is on human dignity.

School choice is the only means by which society can respect parents’ rights to raise their children. Parents have a natural right to raise their kids according to their values and to shelter them from an overwhelming barrage of bureaucratic mandates and politically sanctioned value systems. Likewise, school choice is the only means of reform which gives harbor to teachers and school administrators from that same hurricane of red tape that keeps so many of them from fully channeling their talents and passions to prepare kids for life.

The argument I most consistently hear from opponents of school choice is that many parents are unable to make good decisions for their kids. Thus, the most vulnerable children will suffer. However, this argument has been proven wrong in empirical studies that show regular public schools improve with vouchers that allow kids to attend private schools. Yet, that is not why we should support school choice. We should support school choice because we respect freedom itself. We should support school choice because we respect the rights of parents to do their best for their kids.

Those who fear that school choice will leave vulnerable children more vulnerable shouldn’t in the name of love or compassion empower the state to curtail parents’ ability to choose. Rather than cater to our natural arrogance and wrongly call it “loving our neighbors,” why not instead practice real love? Real love demands freedom to choose to love and to sacrifice. If you see something wrong, go out and change it through human relationships―by loving your neighbors, not by stealing their liberties. Talk to your neighbor’s kids. Volunteer to tutor a friend of your family. Support parents who are struggling. Change the hearts and minds of those close to you with the sweat of your brow, not with the cold impersonal hand of government regulations.

The Oregon Education Investment Board: Top Down on Steroids

The recent firing of University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere has unleashed strong feelings on both sides. While he was officially fired by the Oregon Board of Higher Education “without cause,” news reports made the real reasons clear: “The board said Lariviere had to go because he refused to be a team player. Against their directions, board members said, he lobbied for UO initiatives in the Legislature, gave pay raises to a third of UO professors and administrators and skipped important board meetings.”*

While the official firing was done by the gubernatorially appointed higher education board, the focus quickly turned to Governor John Kitzhaber himself and his role in the process. Now the focus should turn to how this high-profile incident is really the opening salvo in a much larger conflict of visions.

That struggle began quietly in the last legislative session, when the Governor’s proposal for one overarching Oregon Education Investment Board to “oversee a unified public education system from early childhood through post secondary education” was approved. The twelve members of that board, all appointed by the Governor, were conveniently confirmed by the Oregon Senate on November 18, just days before word came out that the UO President soon would be fired.

Now that the new Education Investment Board is in place, chaired by the Governor no less, questions abound about what, if any, role the governing boards of Oregon’s K-12 public education system and the currently spotlighted Board of Higher Education will have going forward. In the eyes of this Governor, we need to “break down the silos” that surround different levels of education so as to make more rational, efficient decisions about how we allocate public funds for everything from pre-Kindergarten through graduate education in the state.

Whichever side you’re on regarding the Lariviere firing, realize that the new Education Investment Board likely will make such situations worse. The twelve new Board members and the Governor may be the smartest people in the room, but they apparently have no clue about why their top down “solutions” won’t work, while costing taxpayers ever more precious dollars.

Here is some of what I told legislators when testifying against the new Board’s creation in the last legislative session:

I oppose SB 909 because I’m afraid that the legislature is about to fall into the “bigger is better” trap. You can’t unify everything from early childhood through post-secondary education without pushing power and control even farther away from the people who should matter most – parents and students.

You should ask how this new unifying effort squares with the Education Act for the Twenty-First Century, which passed the legislature in 1991. Remember the certificates of initial and advanced mastery? Some of you probably don’t because they never gained any traction; they just cost taxpayers a lot of money.

And how does this new effort square with the Quality Education Model, which the legislature approved in 1999?

Why haven’t such efforts in the K-12 education system achieved their goals? Because, according to the late education policy analyst John Wenders, they “…suck power upward and away from parents and students into top down, centralized and inflexible political arrangements, where unions and other special interests have more political clout. This causes accountability to decline and results in higher per pupil costs and lower educational results.”

Is the answer really to put everything from early childhood through post-secondary education into one centrally planned system? I’m sure the Governor and the people he’ll appoint to the Oregon Education Investment Board are very smart people. But no such group can hope to design a system that meets the needs of every, or even most, Oregon children and their parents.

To better meet those needs, we should be going in the opposite direction. Find ways to push power down from the current systems toward teachers, and parents and students. Whatever funding the legislature appropriates to education, give the parents and students much more say in where, and how, it’s spent. Until you can move in that direction, the least you should do is reject this latest attempt to push the power even further away from the people who the system is supposed to help.

When I gave that testimony in May, the new Board seemed like just another example of a top down management system that would move us in the wrong direction. Now, the Lariviere episode makes it clear that if this Board’s powers are allowed to be fully implemented it will look more like Top Down on Steroids.

Finally, Phil Knight was responding to Lariviere’s firing when he said, “It deeply saddens me that some people in power in our state continue to drive Oregon into a death spiral with their embrace of mediocrity.” In the upcoming February legislative session, lawmakers should consider that centralizing control over all education, even by people who are far from mediocre, can lead us down the same destructive path.

There is still time to reverse this ultimate centralization of education power in our state. Oregon students and taxpayers deserve better than Top Down on Steroids.

* University of Oregon rally pushes for independent board after firing of president Richard Lariviere, Bill Graves, The Oregonian, November 29, 2011.

Deconsolidate Oregon’s School Districts, John T. Wenders, Ph.D., Cascade Policy Institute, March 2005.

Phil Knight on Richard Lariviere firing at UO: ‘an application of Oregon’s Assisted Suicide law’, Bill Graves, The Oregonian, November 23, 2011.

Education Savings Accounts Multiply Options for Kids

Kids do better when their parents have the freedom to choose the right kind of educational program for them, without regard to whether the program is public or private. Nine out of ten gold standard social science studies showed that vouchers improve student outcome, and 18 out of 19 showed that they positively impact regular public schools. The remaining studies showed no impact.

But vouchers still limit options. Sometimes home school or a combination of public or private school, tutoring, and home school may be the right fit. Additionally, if set too low or too high, vouchers can limit student options or artificially inflate the cost of education.

The solution? Education savings accounts, which are now available to special needs kids in Arizona. Under the new program, if a child with special needs leaves public school, a portion of the state per-pupil funding will go into a personal education savings account. The money can be used for private school tuition, online courses, tutoring, or home school curriculum. Any unspent money can be used for college within four years of high school graduation.

Such a program harnesses the benefits of vouchers, while tapping into the psychological and financial benefits of asset building. Of children who expect to one day graduate from a four-year college, those with savings accounts are six times more likely to attend college by the time they are 23.

It is time that Oregon extend such educational opportunities to our students.

“If You Save One Life, You Save the World”

Among the blessings for which to be thankful this holiday weekend is the charitable legacy of Theodore Forstmann, who died last Sunday at age 71 after a battle with cancer.

Known to the financial world as CEO of IMG and the Senior Founding Partner of Forstmann Little & Co., Ted Forstmann was also well known for his commitments to philanthropic causes, particularly those helping children.

Forstmann’s interest in education led to his involvement in providing scholarships to children of low-income families. In 1998, he and the late John Walton cofounded the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The Children’s Scholarship Fund is the country’s largest charity helping parents send their children to the school of their choice. Forstmann and Walton challenged local donors across the country to join them in funding the initial 40,000 K-12 scholarships worth $200 million.

Forstmann said, “Every child, regardless of their parents’ income, should have access to a quality education – an education that will not only prepare them for successful private lives, but help them to build cohesive communities and a strong democracy. We believe if you give parents a choice, you will give their children a chance.”

He was also known to say, “If you save one life, you save the world.” The Children’s Scholarship Fund has helped almost 123,000 low-income children nationwide, including more than 600 here in Oregon. The Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland is thankful for Ted Forstmann’s vision and for the generosity that opened a world of achievement to low-income kids with few options.

Make the Grade with Online Options

Kids today learn how to use a computer or a video game system before they can even read or write, yet states are not taking advantage of this kind of technology in education, according to the Nation’s Digital Learning Council.

The Council released the first Nation’s Digital Learning Report Card last month, evaluating states on their adoption of healthy policies to help kids get more out of their education through online courses and materials.

Oregon received high marks for our state’s full-time online programs, thanks to online public charter schools. Charter schools are privately run public schools, in which parents can choose to enroll their children regardless of their residential district. Oregon’s online charter schools are growing quickly, but they still serve only about one percent of public school students.

Meanwhile, Oregon received low marks in the national Report Card for failing to make online classes available to public school students on a course-by-course basis. Yet, the need for such options is undeniable.

Consider that 75% of Oregon schools fail to offer students Advanced Placement or IB classes in reading, math, science, and social studies. Contrast that with states like Florida, where thousands of kids attending regular public schools that don’t offer in-house AP courses can access effective online advanced courses, as well as courses designed to help them catch up with their peers.

Oregon’s legislature will soon consider online learning again, since it commissioned a task force to examine governance for online charter schools. But instead of focusing on how to govern our state’s successful online charter schools, legislators should focus on removing the barriers that keep so many children from the valuable online opportunities available to kids in other states and nations.

PRESS RELEASE: National digital report card finds Oregon needs more online learning opportunities


October 13, 2011


Christina Martin
Policy Analyst, School Choice Project Director
Cascade Policy Institute
Phone: (503) 242-0900

National digital report card finds Oregon needs more online learning opportunities

PORTLAND, Ore.- Today, Digital Learning Now! released the first Nation’s Digital Learning Report Card along with the Roadmap for Reform. Cascade Policy Institute joins those calling for policymakers to take bold action to bring education into the 21st century.

“Kids today learn how to use a computer or a video game system before they can even read or write,” said Christina Martin, policy analyst at the Cascade Policy Institute. “But the sad fact is that not even 10 percent of schools take advantage of this kind of technology in education.”

The new report provides a comprehensive guide to help governors, state education chiefs, state lawmakers and policymakers adopt bold reforms to transform education for the digital age.

“Digital learning provides unprecedented opportunity for delivering rigorous and personalized educational material,” said Martin. “With this report, policymakers across the nation will be better able to see how to incorporate this technology into their schools.”

Among the elements of high quality learning, Oregon received higher marks for its strong full-time online programs, primarily thanks to its online charter schools, and a 2011 bill that ended several enrollment restrictions.

However, it received many low marks for lacking opportunities for students to take online classes on a course-by-course basis. Many students across the state still do not have this opportunity.

“Cascade Policy Institute strongly supports increasing educational options for kids. Online learning is one very important option where we have seen great inroads. But there is still more work to be done, particularly to increase access for part-time online programs and blended learning,” said Steve Buckstein, who founded Cascade Policy Institute in 1991 to advocate for more school choice for Oregon’s students.

Released this afternoon at the National Summit on Education Reform 2011, held by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Roadmap for Reform provides the nuts-and-bolts policies that states need to transition to a student-centered education that prepares students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and careers.  Each state also received a report card that assesses current laws and policies and their alignment to the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning.


About Cascade Policy Institute

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s premier policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility and economic opportunity. To that end, the Institute publishes policy studies, provides public speakers, organizes community forums and sponsors educational programs.

For more information or to schedule an interview, contact Christina Martin at 503-242-0900 or

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