Parental Choice Champion Betsy DeVos Confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education

By Steve Buckstein

Opponents of Betsy DeVos tried everything they could to keep her from becoming U.S. Secretary of Education. In the end, she was approved by the Senate on Tuesday with Vice President Pence breaking a 50-50 tie vote.

In addition to arguments that she is wealthy (which she is) and that she never attended public schools (which she didn’t), opponents feigned shock that she had the temerity to argue that educating children takes precedence over protecting and funding public schools that may not meet their needs.

Perhaps her opponents’ biggest error is thinking that private schools are not providing “public education.” But they are. Many Americans recognize that meeting the educational needs of children trumps meeting the financial needs of the adults who work in public school buildings.

Public education means educating the public—or it should. Students don’t suddenly stop being part of the public just because their parents believe they will be better educated in other than their local public school building.

Betsy DeVos believes that public funding of education shouldn’t be limited to schools dominated by public teachers unions. She may not be a friend of those unions, but she is a friend of children who may need those funds to help them learn somewhere else. She has, and will advocate for school choice programs including charters, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts that allow those children to take their public education funds to the schools they and their families—not the government—choose.


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

The Past, Present, and Future of School Choice in Oregon

By Steve Buckstein

The vast majority of Oregonians attended public schools assigned to them based on their ZIP codes. Yet, everyone has friends or relatives who made different choices such as private, religious, and home schooling.

Few know, however, that these other choices were almost eliminated in the 1920s. Bigotry was strong across America then, and not only against Blacks. The Ku Klux Klan and others placed a measure on Oregon’s 1922 ballot that would have required children to attend only schools run by the government. The Oregon Compulsory Education Act was defended as “a “precautionary measure against the moral pestilence of paupers, vagabonds, and possibly convicts.”

Approved by a narrow margin, the measure was challenged and overturned by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1925. In its ruling the Court said “the fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.”

So, while choices other than public schools remained available, most families have been unable to afford public school taxes and private school tuition at the same time. This reality caused a small group, including myself, to place a citizen initiative on Oregon’s ballot in 1990. Measure 11 would have provided refundable tax credits to every K-12 student in the state, which they could use to attend any public, private, religious, or home school of their choice. No state had voted on such a sweeping reform before, and we felt it was time for Oregon to lead the way.

On election night that November we came up short, with only about one third of the vote. That didn’t surprise us, because school choice was a new concept to most people, and it was easy for our opponents to scare voters into saying No. Before the votes had even been tallied, we began thinking about how we could move our school choice agenda forward in the future. We decided that Oregon needed a free-market think tank to advocate for school choice as well as other limited government ideas. We incorporated Cascade Policy Institute two months later. In the 25 years that have now passed some significant progress on the school choice front has been made.

We worked hard to introduce the charter school concept in the state in the mid-1990s. By 1999 the Oregon legislature passed a charter school bill that now allows more than 120 public charter schools to operate across the state.

Also in 1999 we evolved from just talking about school choice to actually providing choice to hundreds of low-income kids in the Portland area through our Children’s Scholarship Fund program. We initially raised $1 million of private money that was matched by $1 million nationally to provide partial scholarships to over 500 students for four years at the schools of their choice. The fact that over 6,600 children applied for those 500 slots demonstrated that the demand for school choice is great in Oregon. We can’t help them all, so we continue to advocate for broader programs that will.

In 2011 three school choice bills passed as part of an education reform package, including expansion of online charter schools, more options to sponsor new charter schools, and open enrollment between public school districts.

Over these past twenty five years Cascade and others have brought a number of national speakers to the state talking about the benefits of school choice elsewhere, including some 61 privately or publicly funded scholarship programs, charter schools, education tax credits, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

In 2014, Cascade proposed a limited Education Savings Account bill to help disabled, foster, and low-income children. ESAs allow students to take some or all of the money the state would spend on them in a public school and put it on a restricted use debit card. They can fund a wide variety of approved educational options, such as private school, individual tutoring, and distance learning. Any money not used in a given year can be rolled over to spend on educational expenses in the future, even into college.

Earlier tax credit and voucher programs are now seen as the rotary-dial telephones of the school choice movement. ESAs, with their expansive array of options and their ability to hold costs down as students plan and save for the future are seen as the smartphones of the movement— smartphones with virtually unlimited apps to help children learn in their own unique ways.

This year, Cascade is promoting a broad ESA proposal in the Oregon legislature. Senate Bill 437, and other bills that may emerge, are designed to enhance school choice for everyone. In the future, our mission—and yours if you choose to accept it—will be to help our fellow Oregonians understand and support what many now call the new civil rights issue in America: the right of every child, no matter where they live or their parents’ financial means, to reach their own potential by making their own educational choices affordable. Until this right is achieved, too many children will remain trapped in schools assigned to them by their ZIP code that fail to meet their needs.

We won’t stop advocating for school choice until every child has the real choices they deserve. We appreciate the help of everyone who shares this vision. It can’t become a reality too soon.


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

An Oregon Education Solution Whose Time Has Come

By Kathryn Hickok

Derrell Bradford has spent his adult life passionately advocating for education reform through parental choice. Derrell grew up in southwest Baltimore and received a scholarship to a private high school. 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…,” Derrell 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 home addresses. Families deserve better.

January 22-28 is National School Choice Week, the world’s largest celebration of parental choice and effective educational options for all children.

Students have different talents and needs and learn in different ways. The landscape of options to meet those needs is more diverse today than ever. These options include traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.

Oregon’s 2012 “Mother of the Year” and parental choice activist Bobbie Jager says, “The word ‘choice’ in our home means, ‘of high quality and carefully selected,’ as our children’s education and schools should be. As parents, we need to be able to make these choices for each of our children.”

It’s time Oregon took a serious look at the diversity of options parents now have in 61 school choice programs across the country, including privately or publicly funded scholarship programs, charter schools, education tax credits, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts.

Parents—not public school bureaucracies—should be in the educational “driver’s seat.” To really empower Oregon families, the Legislature should enact Senate Bill 437 during this year’s upcoming legislative session. This law would give 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. With this “Education Savings Account” (analogous to a debit card for qualifying education expenses), parents can choose the schools or services that will meet their children’s learning needs.

Oregon has a history of bold experimentation in other policy areas. It’s time to expand the role of parents choosing―and the market delivering―better education for Oregon’s children through educational choice, because every child deserves a ticket to a better future right now. Parental choice is the way of the future, and Education Savings Accounts for Oregon parents are a life-changing education solution whose time has come.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in The Coos Bay World on January 23, 2017.

Educational Choice: A “Ticket to the Future” for Every Child

By Kathryn Hickok

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

“A scholarship is not a five-year plan or a power point…,” Derrell 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 home addresses. Families deserve better.

It’s time Oregon took a serious look at the diversity of options parents now have in 61 school choice programs across the country, including privately or publicly funded scholarship programs, charter schools, education tax credits, vouchers, and Education Savings Accounts. Oregon has a history of bold experimentation in other policy areas. It’s time to expand the role of parents choosing―and the market delivering―better education for Oregon’s children through educational choice, because every child deserves a ticket to a better future today.


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

Policy Picnic – January 25, 2017

Please join us for our monthly Policy Picnic led by

special guest Bobbie Jager

 


 

From 2012 “Oregon Mother of the Year” to School Choice Activist

 

January 22-28, 2017 is National School Choice Week. Started in 2011, NSCW has grown into the world’s largest celebration of opportunity in education. The Week is a nonpartisan, nonpolitical public awareness effort.

Held every January, National School Choice Week shines a positive spotlight on effective education options for every child.

The goal of National School Choice Week is to raise public awareness of all types of education options for children. These options include traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.

In honor of National School Choice Week, Cascade Policy Institute is delighted to host guest speaker Bobbie Jager, Oregon’s 2012 “Mother of the Year” and energetic advocate for educational choice for all Oregon children. She will talk about how she got involved in education advocacy and what’s ahead for parents and students in Oregon in 2017.

Last year Bobbie wrote a Cascade Commentary in support of extending Oregon’s public school open enrollment law.

Admission is free, but reservations are required due to space limitations. You are welcome to bring your own lunch; light refreshments will be served.

Reserve your free tickets here.

 

Cascade’s Policy Picnics are generously sponsored

by Dumas Law Group, LLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Improve Education Outcomes Through Education Savings Accounts, Not Measure 97’s Hidden Sales Tax

On the third day of the new school year at Portland’s Madison High School, Governor Kate Brown spoke about her goal to improve educational outcomes for all students. She bemoaned the fact that at 74%, Oregon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, and then she noted that “For me this is a very personal issue”:

“My stepson blew out of one of the local area high schools a few years ago. We were very fortunate. We had the resources to provide him with another educational opportunity, but not all families do. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that we work together to improve Oregon’s high school graduation rates.”*

So how does Governor Brown propose to assist families that don’t have the resources hers had to help their children achieve educational success? Apparently, by supporting Measure 97 on the November ballot, which would be the biggest tax increase in Oregon’s history.

In reality, Measure 97 is a sales tax hidden behind the façade of being a tax on big business. Its passage will actually make it harder for many of the families the Governor wants to help, in the questionable hope that the revenue it generates would be spent properly to give their kids a better chance at graduation from the same schools that have failed so many in the past.

Measure 97 will not only act as a consumption tax on many of the goods and services Oregon families buy every day, but it also will reduce private sector employment opportunities as more than $3 billion are siphoned out of the private sector into the state general fund each year. From there, all this money—which is about what a six-percent retail sales tax would produce—may or may not be spent in ways that would give struggling families the same opportunities that the Governor’s family had when her stepson needed help.

Rather than ask voters to take a $30 billion gamble over the next ten years on a tax measure that may not show any positive economic or educational results for Oregon families, the Governor and voters should consider another way to provide all families with the resources they need to give their children the educational opportunities they deserve. And, this other way will not raise anyone’s taxes, and it will not reduce anyone’s job prospects.

This other way is school choice. Governor Brown’s predecessor, John Kitzhaber, took a major step toward this other way when he signed Oregon’s public charter school law in 1999 that currently allows more than 30,000 students to attend some 127 charter schools for educational opportunities they otherwise would have been denied. All without costing taxpayers or the public school system one additional dime.

Oregon is one of forty-three states and the District of Columbia that offer public K-12 charter school opportunities to their families. Now, the newest wave in the school choice movement is offering Education Savings Accounts in five states, and that number is sure to grow.

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

Each eligible child is able to draw from his or her own personal Education Savings Account maintained by the state and funded by most, but not all, of the money that otherwise would have been sent to the local school district. When properly structured, ESAs require no new taxes and are not a financial burden on the state or local public school districts. They simply allow money already allocated for public education to be used in ways individual families choose, instead of in ways dictated by the ZIP code students happen to live in.

In an improvement over earlier school choice programs such as vouchers, ESAs let families spend only what they want to each year, and save or rollover the balance toward future educational needs. If not all the money in an ESA is spent by the time a student graduates from high school, the remaining funds may be used to help cover his or her higher education costs.

So, let’s not ask taxpayers to gamble that our troubled public schools will somehow get it right this time if we simply give them enough new money out of our pockets with the hidden sales tax in Measure 97. Instead, let’s ask our legislators in Salem to explore a new, truly innovative way to improve educational outcomes for each individual student with personal Education Savings Accounts.


* Governor Brown’s complete remarks at Madison High School were recorded and can be heard on this KXL radio episode of Beyond the Headlines in the first segment of about seven minutes at https://soundcloud.com/kxl-beyond-the-headlines/week-of-8-28-16-episode-130

The Time is Right for School Choice

By John A. Charles, Jr.

In early December, President Obama signed a bill that dismantles most of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the signature education legacy of former President George W. Bush.

According to the New York Times, the reform law will “restore authority for school performance and accountability to local districts and states after a lengthy period of aggressive federal involvement.”

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander, chair of the Senate Education Committee, stated that the repeal of NCLB “will unleash a flood of excitement and innovation and student achievement that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Ironically, in 1991, when he was secretary of education under President Bush, Alexander flew out to Oregon to pay tribute to the passage of the Oregon Education Act for the 21st Century (OEA-21). The OEA-21 was the legacy of then-House Speaker Vera Katz, who described it as “revolutionary” and “necessary to the economic prosperity of the state.”

OEA-21 established the infamous CIM/CAM student progress standards that came to be hated by just about every teacher, student, and parent in Oregon. CIM/CAM requirements were euthanized by the Oregon legislature in 2007.

With the demise of two prominent education reform programs, there’s a lesson here for Oregon policymakers: Having the federal government micromanage K-12 education is a bad idea, but top-down planning by the state isn’t much better. Parents are the ones who need to be in charge of the decision making.

A new program enacted by Nevada last June is exactly what Oregon needs. The Nevada legislature approved a law establishing Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs) for all public school students, beginning January 1, 2016. ESAs are private accounts, managed by the state for parents, which allow students to create their own individualized educational programs.

When an ESA is established, 90 percent of the state funds that would have been spent on a student in a generic public school are placed in the ESA, where the money is drawn down in debit-card fashion by parents for various educational expenses, including private school tuition, online learning, tutors, or textbooks.

For 2016, a Nevada ESA will be worth about $5,100 for each student, or $5,700 for low-income students who will receive 100 percent of the state allocation. Therefore, every public school student will have the financial means to walk out of an underperforming school and pursue alternatives. This will immediately change the balance of power between parents and school administrators, creating an incentive for every public school to treat students as customers, not conscripts.

Most importantly, if ESA funds are not fully utilized by the end of the school year, the residual amount stays in the account, available for future use. This eliminates the dysfunctional “use it or lose it” imperative associated with most government programs.

Since 93 percent of all Nevada students are in public schools, they will immediately qualify for an ESA. Private school students can become eligible if they return to a public school for at least 100 consecutive days. All students entering kindergarten will be eligible and will never have to requalify, which means the Nevada program will have universal coverage for all students by 2027 at the latest.

On November 17, the Oregon Senate Education Committee held an informational hearing on the Nevada ESA program. Nevada Senator Scott Hammond participated via speakerphone. He provided an overview of the ESA law and answered questions from Oregon senators.

Education Committee Chair Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) has not publicly said whether he will pursue similar legislation for Oregon, but the November hearing was a positive step forward. If there is legislative interest, we can use the 2016 interim as an opportunity to observe the Nevada rollout, learn from their experience, and craft a similar (or better) program for Oregon.

Now that Congress has helped clear the way by repealing the most onerous provisions of NCLB, this would be an excellent time to move beyond Utopian central-planning schemes and restore “consumer sovereignty” in learning with Educational Savings Accounts.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. This article originally appeared in the December 2015 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Tennessee Special Needs Kids Get Choices in Education

Tennessee just became the 28th state to enact a private school choice program, giving parents more options for their children’s education. Governor Bill Haslam signed the nation’s fourth Education Savings Account law on Monday.

Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi already allowed parents to have some control over the funding allocated for their kids’ education through Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are a flexible way for parents to manage some of the money that otherwise would be used for their kids’ education in their zoned public school. ESAs allow parents to pay for different kinds of educational services that may be the best fit for their children, including tuition, online courses, tutoring, therapy, or other categories of expenses defined by law.

Now, Tennessee children with an Individualized Education Plan will be able to use state and local funds, plus special education funds to which they would be entitled, for the schools and services their parents judge will best meet their individual needs. This law empowers parents of children with autism and many other special needs to get the help they need to succeed in school.

Parents of children with special needs want less red tape and more options. ESAs empower families to find and pay for those options, providing winning solutions for children. Oregon children should be given this opportunity, too.

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