“I wish that the education system could understand that not every child fits into the same sized box, and everyone needs to do what is right for their family,” says Lisa, a Portland-area mother whose children receive tuition assistance from the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland.
When Cascade Policy Institute started this privately funded scholarship program in 1999, we learned “hands-on” that middle- and lower-income parents share the same interest in their children’s education as do parents of greater means, and they are motivated to seek the same kinds of opportunities on their behalf.
Parents know a solid education prepares students for life, and that path begins in grade school. But many children are trapped in neighborhood public schools assigned to them by their street addresses that, for many reasons, may not meet their needs or standards that are important to their families.
“Education reform” debates usually focus on how to get the maximum number of children minimally educated. But real-life parents want to get at least a minimum number of children (their own) maximally educated. These two goals shouldn’t be at odds. In fact, the second can drive the first―if more parents had the opportunity to make meaningful choices about their children’s education.
Fifteen years ago, the national Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) offered dollar-for-dollar matching grants to independent local partner programs that would provide partial tuition assistance to low-income grade school children to attend the schools of their choice. Cascade Policy Institute was among the nonprofit organizations which took up this unprecedented challenge, raising $1 million in local funds to start a $2 million local program, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland. Since then, CSF and its partners have invested $568 million in private funding to help more than 139,000 children nationwide.
While they don’t have much discretionary income (the average CSF-Portland family income is $41,000), CSF families always must pay part of their tuition themselves (Portland parents pay $1,777 on average). This ensures that the scholarship remains a “hand up,” rather than a handout. Because they have “skin in the game,” CSF parents are motivated to choose schools carefully and to encourage their children to make the most of their opportunities.
The private schools CSF students attend typically spend one-third to one-half what neighboring public schools spend per student (the average tuition for CSF-Portland students is $3,578 this year), with better results in terms of graduation rates and college attendance. However, the point of the CSF program is not to prove that private schools are better than public schools. Rather, CSF believes that parents are the primary educators of their children and have their interests at heart. When empowered with a modest amount of financial help (the average Portland scholarship award is $1,458), parents will invest their own money, time, effort, and discipline to obtain the kind of education they want for their students.
CSF partner programs respect the decision-making processes of families and support parents in directing their children’s education. This family-centered element is what sets parent-focused school choice efforts apart from other ways of addressing the failures of today’s public education system. No one can design a school system that meets every child’s needs. No statistical data analysis or bureaucratic goal setting can ensure that any particular child makes it to high school graduation, succeeds in college, or excels in a career. No school can be all things to all children―nor should it. But most parents, including low-income ones, are keenly aware of their own students’ needs, aptitudes, strengths, and interests―and what it takes for them to learn.
“The children have grown in spades since attending [their] school,” says Lisa. “They have a school family that is very comforting to them. They feel safe every single day. They know that everything that is being done is centered on their lives and future….In their prior school they were pushed aside, never pushed into academically challenging areas. Here at this school every opportunity is given to them to succeed and become better students and better learners.”
Top-down education reform focuses on what is not working for large numbers of people―but keeps those students in the system while the problems are being “fixed.” School choice focuses on what is working across all kinds of schools―and empowers parents to choose the options that best help their children learn.
Top-down approaches pour more money into a broken system. School choice programs achieve more satisfactory results with more modest amounts of money because the dynamic is shifted in favor of parents. Government-focused education reform analyzes the forest; school choice promotes the best interest of the trees. School choice programs like CSF-Portland prove that good things happen when parents have opportunities to choose excellence for their own children.
Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.