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

Children’s Scholarship Fund Closes the Achievement Gap for Low-Income Kids

Since 1999, the nonprofit Children’s Scholarship Fund has empowered more than 152,000 low-income children nationwide to receive a quality education in private and parochial grade schools through privately funded partial-tuition scholarships.

Children’s Scholarship Fund parents value high-quality education as the way out of poverty for their children and sacrifice financially to give them that opportunity. It is a feature of the CSF program that all families pay part of their tuition bill themselves, ensuring a family commitment to education.

The investments of both parents and scholarship benefactors are reaping great rewards. Over time, studies of college enrollment and graduation rates of scholarship alumni are showing that, despite coming from socioeconomic backgrounds associated with lower rates of college enrollment, CSF alumni enroll in college at an average rate that is similar to or higher than the general population.

In other words, these students’ education in private and parochial grade schools, made possible by a relatively modest level of financial assistance, is closing the achievement gap for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.

Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland is a “hand up” here in our state that helps Oregon kids to reach for success in school and in life. If you would like to help a lower-income Oregon child to get a better education today, contact the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland at Cascade Policy Institute.

Scaling Down: The Power of One

Is it truly possibly for one person to make a positive difference in education in America? Darla Romfo has a good answer to this question. She is president of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which has helped more than 145,000 low-income children nationwide to attend private grade schools. She wrote:

“[Children’s Scholarship Fund founder] John [Walton] once told me…that giving the scholarships and meeting the kids and their parents grounded the whole effort of trying to reform the larger system. He knew no matter what happened with those efforts, he was having a direct impact on the lives of kids today….

“[A] caring adult who really invests in an authentic relationship with a child will bring enormous benefits to the child, to say nothing of the rewards to the adult….

“We can’t stop trying to get education right in America, but maybe we will get further faster if every adult who can gets involved in the life of a child who has a couple of strikes against them. Whether it is through a mentoring program, a scholarship program, a school-based program, or some other means, it could make the ultimate difference in a child’s life, and you don’t have to be up to speed on the latest education reform idea to do it and make it work.”

For more information about how you can help the Children’s Scholarship Fund make a difference today, visit scholarshipfund.org.

What Gets Kids “Ready for College and Life?”

Students across Oregon are back in school. Have you ever thought about how important it is where a child goes to school? After their family, the greatest influence on children as they grow up is usually their school.

Private scholarship programs like the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland help elementary children from lower-income families choose the school that is right for them. CSF-Portland has helped nearly 700 Oregon kids get a “hand up” in private, parochial, and home school educational settings.

Studies of similar scholarship programs around the country show the difference educational opportunity makes in children’s lives, including raising their chances of high school graduation. By choosing the right school for their child and paying part of the tuition themselves, parents are empowered to hold schools accountable. When parents actively invest in their children’s education, students are highly motivated to succeed.

A young man who attended private schools in Portland thanks to the Children’s Scholarship Fund wrote at graduation, “I have learned that nothing’s going to be handed to you and that you’ll succeed through hard work….[Private school] was challenging, but it has gotten me ready for college and life.”

A quality elementary education is a simple step that puts kids with limited choices on a path to success that can change the rest of their lives. To see how you can help a child reach his or her potential through this program, visit cascadepolicy.org.

Low-Income Scholarship Recipients “Highly Successful” in High School and Beyond

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice just released an exploratory study examining the graduates of the Children’s Scholarship Fund Baltimore. CSF Baltimore is a privately funded scholarship program helping low-income children in the Baltimore area to attend the tuition-based elementary schools of their parents’ or guardians’ choice. CSF Baltimore is a partner program of the New York-based Children’s Scholarship Fund.

According to the study:

“The study found that CSFB elementary scholarship recipients had indeed been highly successful in their post-elementary educational achievements. Nearly all CSFB alumni contacted had graduated from high school in four or fewer years after eighth grade―97 percent to be exact. This high percentage is nearly identical to tracking studies completed with Children’s Scholarship Fund programs in other metropolitan areas (Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Toledo). The percentage is much higher than the national high school graduation rate of 70 percent, and higher than the Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) graduation rate of 38 percent to 64 percent.”

Children’s Scholarship Fund partner programs empower students to overcome challenges through a strong foundation in their K-8 education. As these children grow up, studies show that the philanthropic investments made in their education―combined with the initiative, dedication, and involvement of parents and teachers―is paying off for tens of thousands of children who now have a better chance at success in high school, college, careers, and life.

School Choice Fosters Students’ “Profound Gratitude,” Author Says

Students everywhere are back in school, including grade school children from low-income families who are attending Oregon private schools thanks to the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland.

New York Post columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley recently interviewed a diverse group of students who have graduated from Children’s Scholarship Fund programs across the country. Her book, Opportunity and Hope: Transforming Children’s Lives through Scholarships, shows what a good education means to young people who have a better chance in life because of private scholarships, and she makes a compelling case for the power of school choice. The scholarship alumni profiled in the book are representative of thousands of others, including more than 650 students who have received scholarships here in Oregon.

Riley wrote: “The recurring themes I heard…were ones of improved academic outcomes, solid foundations for high school, college, and beyond, and a profound gratitude and desire to give back….Together, these children will ensure that the next generation gets its shot at the middle class.”

For many children in America, one-size-fits-all public schools fail to let them truly learn and excel; and many low-income parents want access to schools that match their children’s needs. Children’s Scholarship Fund students are living proof of what is possible when families are empowered to choose the schools that are right for their children. For more information about real-world education solutions that are getting results for kids, visit SchoolChoiceForOregon.com.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

The Votes Are In: Small Scholarships Have a Big Impact

The Children’s Scholarship Fund is a nationally recognized, privately funded scholarship program which has helped more than 139,000 low-income children attend tuition-based elementary schools nationwide since 1998. The program recently surveyed scholarship families in New York about their experiences. The results include:

• 98.5 percent said their CSF scholarships help them make the best educational choices for their child.

• 73.1 percent reported they could not afford to send their child to their chosen school without a CSF scholarship.

• 70.3 percent noticed an improvement in their child’s academic performance and/or engagement since enrolling in their current school.

While New York City public schools spend about $20,000 per student, an average CSF scholarship grant of $1,600 is enough to empower these low-income parents to obtain a private school education for their kids.

Cascade Policy Institute runs the Oregon partner program of the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The New York program’s poll results are consistent with the informal feedback Cascade receives from scholarship parents here. “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,” said one Portland-area CSF parent.

Programs like the Children’s Scholarship Fund respect the decision-making processes of families and support parents in directing their children’s education. School choice programs like CSF prove that good things happen when parents can vote with their feet on behalf of their own kids.


 

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

School Choice Promotes Opportunities “Centered on the Future”

“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.

The Future of School Choice in Oregon: Education Savings Accounts

School choice is widespread in America, including in Oregon—unless you are poor. Affluent families have choice because they can move to different neighborhoods or communities, send their children to private schools, or supplement schooling with tutors, online courses, and enrichment programs. Lower and middle-income families, meanwhile, too often are trapped with one option—a school in need of improvement assigned to them based on their zip code.

Some states such as Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida have made significant progress toward providing more Kindergarten through 12th grade options for many children. Public charter schools (including online charters) and private school attendance made possible by state funded vouchers or tax credits are increasing families’ opportunities to find the right fit for their children. But these options are constantly under attack by those who represent the status quo: those who want the public school system to stay just the way it is, so it continues to provide virtually guaranteed jobs and benefits for certain teachers and administrators―regardless of the results achieved by the children they are supposed to serve.

Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman first popularized the school choice voucher concept in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom. Now, a new concept is capturing the imaginations of a new generation of parents and policy makers: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). Going beyond the voucher or tax credit idea for school choice, ESAs introduce market concepts that help parents become active shoppers for educational services, thus improving their quality while reducing costs.

As Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. wrote in a major study for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice:

Education savings accounts are the way of the future. Under such accounts—managed by parents with state supervision to ensure accountability—parents can use their children’s education funding to choose among public and private schools, online education programs, certified private tutors, community colleges, and even universities. Education savings accounts bring Milton Friedman’s original school voucher idea into the 21st century.

ESAs differ from state-funded vouchers. Typically, parents can redeem vouchers only at state-approved public and private schools. In contrast, ESAs allow parents to choose among public schools, private schools, private tutors, community colleges, online education programs, and universities. In addition, ESAs allow parents to put unused funds into college savings plans, thus changing the “use it or lose it” mentality in the current public school funding system. ESAs promote user-based subsidies (like the food stamp program) rather than supplier-based subsidies that represent the current public school funding model.

Conceived of by the Goldwater Institute of Arizona nearly a decade ago, education savings accounts were first passed by that state’s Legislature in 2011 for special-needs children. In 2012 the program was expanded to children adopted out of the state foster system, children of active-duty military parents, and children in “D” and “F” failing schools. Last June, Arizona’s Governor signed a bill to expand ESAs to children entering Kindergarten and to increase funding for the accounts.

Nationally, school choice is becoming a more bipartisan issue as many Republicans are being joined by leading Democrats, such as former Clinton White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. McCurry is now chairman of the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provides privately funded tuition scholarships to low-income elementary school kids. He describes the school choice movement as a rare example of centrism in our increasingly polarized American politics.

And, America’s newest U.S. Senator, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey, has long been a school choice advocate. Speaking back in 2001 for Cascade Policy Institute, Booker told Black students at Portland’s Self-Enhancement, Inc. how important school choice is for his fellow African Americans.

It is time for Oregon to move further toward school choice for every child, and ESAs offer an attractive way to start the journey. Already, our state has over 120 public charter schools that were made possible by passage of a 1999 bill in the Republican-controlled legislature that was signed into law by a Democratic Governor (John Kitzhaber).

In the upcoming February 2014 Oregon legislative session, Oregonians will have an opportunity to start down the ESA road with passage of the Education Equity Emergency Act (E3).* It will create Empowerment Scholarship Accounts modeled after the highly successful Arizona program. These scholarships will help level the educational playing field for kids with special educational needs, in foster care, or in low-income families. Scholarship recipients can use ninety percent of their state education funding for approved educational expenses like private schools, tutoring, education therapy, textbooks, online education programs, community colleges, universities, or college savings plans.

One E3 Act sponsor notes, “These students have had unique challenges in their lives and require enhanced educational flexibility to ensure successful degree attainment.”**

The Act is designed to impose no financial burden on the state or on the school districts that scholarship students currently attend. Scholarship participation will be capped at 0.5% of students in a school district unless a district chooses to allow additional participation.

Oregon has a history of bold experimentation in other policy areas. Now is the time to experiment with expanding the role of parents choosing and the market delivering better education for Oregon’s children. Education Savings Accounts will empower families to find better educational options, leave the “use it or lose it” funding mechanism behind, and save toward their children’s higher education. Altogether, ESAs will provide winning situations for children, their parents, and Oregon’s future.

* The Education Equity Emergency Act is in draft form as of January 7, 2014. The official bill language should be available before the session begins on February 3.

** From a letter by State Senator Tim Knopp to the Chair of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee Mark Hass requesting a hearing on the E3 Act during the January interim legislative hearing days. The hearing is tentatively scheduled for the afternoon of Thursday, January 16.

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

 

Educational Opportunity Is a Centrist Issue

Former White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry gave a speech May 21 to education reform advocates in Washington, D.C., in which he described the school choice movement as a rare example of centrism in our increasingly polarized American politics. McCurry serves as board chair of the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which provides privately funded tuition scholarships to low-income elementary kids.

McCurry, who worked for the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President Bill Clinton, believes people of good will can and should come together in favor of educational opportunity for all children. “We’ve got to…make sure we get to that destination in which every child in this country goes to a school that equips them for their future, and every parent has the opportunity to make a choice about how that kid will be educated,” he said.

McCurry said that people who want to change the education system so that parents, rather than bureaucracies, decide where kids go to school should build bridges across the ideological spectrum. He advised school choice advocates to seek new allies and to broaden the coalition for school choice.

After all, the point of school choice programs is to empower parents of every political stripe, racial and ethnic background, and income level to get their child educated, even if they live in the worst public school district in the country. If that’s not a centrist issue, what is?

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

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