Now Is the Time: Oregon’s Educational Opportunity Act, The Power of Choice

By Steve Buckstein

Oregon now has the chance to become an early adopter of a universal Education Savings Account program. An ESA program allows Kindergarten through 12th grade students to use part of the state funds allocated to their local school districts for other educational expenses and services of their choice, such as private or home schools, tutors, and online courses. Funds not used by the student in a given year can be rolled over, all the way to college.

Senate Bill 437 as Introduced would allow 100 percent of the average annual state funding (currently $8,781) for disabled and low-income students, and 90 percent for all other students, to fund ESAs for any students wishing to use them. This likely would result in a $200 million fiscal impact on the state and local school districts combined. A small price to pay for educational freedom, but not likely to happen in a legislative session facing a budget shortfall.

So, the bill has been amended to virtually eliminate any negative fiscal impact. It lowers ESA accounts to $6,000 for disabled and low-income students and $4,500 for all other students. These accounts represent real money…for real educational opportunities…for every student—with no fiscal impact on the state budget.

Please share your interest in Senate Bill 437, the Educational Opportunity Act, with your state legislators. And get involved at the Educational Opportunity Act Facebook page and at SchoolChoiceforOregon.com.


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

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.

“Facing Reality” Report Offers Solutions to Governor Brown’s $1.7 Billion Budget Hole Without Raising Taxes

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Media Contacts:

Steve Buckstein (503) 242-0900

Jeff Kropf (541) 729-6229

PORTLAND, Ore. – Cascade Policy Institute and Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation jointly released a new report Wednesday, entitled Facing Reality: Suggestions to balance Oregon’s budget without raising taxes. The report offers practical solutions to fill Governor Kate Brown’s estimated $1.7 billion budget hole without raising taxes.

Facing Reality is the third budget blueprint in a series: In 2010 and 2013 Cascade Policy Institute and Americans for Prosperity-Oregon published Facing Reality reports that offered state legislators an opportunity to “reset” state government using the time-tested principles of limited government and pro-growth economic policies.

“Oregon has over one billion dollars more to spend than the last budget but is still nearly two billion short because Governor Brown’s budget continues out-of-control and unsustainable spending,” said Jeff Kropf, Executive Director of Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation. “It’s time to face the reality that raising taxes will never provide enough money to build the fantasy utopia envisioned by the Governor and current legislative leadership. There is no free lunch, and new taxes are only going to hurt the poor and the middle class.”

Facing Reality outlines $1.3 billion in reduced spending in seven specific areas which, coupled with small across-the-board agency reductions, equals $1.7 billion, enough to fill the Governor’s estimated budget hole and removing the need to raise taxes.

“Keep in mind that even with our Facing Reality budget reductions, the state of Oregon will still be spending more money than the previous budget,” said Steve Buckstein, Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute. “The reality the Governor and the legislature must face is that the bill for years of overspending is coming due, and raising taxes that hurt the economy is not the answer. Reducing how fast spending grows is the sustainable way forward.”

This third Facing Reality report offers politically possible solutions to meet the needs of Oregonians. It still gives most state agencies more money to spend, but without enacting new taxes being proposed by the several dozen tax increase bills introduced for consideration in the 2017 legislative session.

Here are the seven specific budget reductions proposed in Facing Reality:

Solution Impact
PERS—$100,000 cap $135 million
Department of Administrative Services—halt additional hiring $120 million
Medicaid—opt out of ACA expansion $360 million
Cover All Kids—reject expansion $55 million
Department of Human Services—targeted reductions $321 million
Department of Human Services—cash assistance reforms $160 million
State School Fund—reject Measure 98 $139 million
Total $1,290 million

For agencies not identified for specific reductions in the report, across-the-board reductions of about three percent from Governor Brown’s budget would eliminate the shortfall she identified. If this plan were implemented, none of the tax and fee increases outlined in the Governor’s budget would be necessary.

Buckstein and Kropf note, “Most Oregonians must face their own family budget realities every day. Facing Reality is a good-faith effort to hold our state government to the same budgetary realities. We look forward to working with state legislative and executive branch leaders to help implement such realities in 2017.”

Read the full report here: Facing Reality: Suggestions to balance Oregon’s budget without raising taxes

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research and educational organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Cascade’s mission is to develop and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity.  Oregon Capitol Watch Foundation is a 501(c)3 charitable educational foundation dedicated to educating Oregon citizens about how state and local governments spend their tax dollars by researching, documenting, and publicizing government spending and developing policy proposals that promote sound fiscal policies and efficient government.

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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. 

Measure 97 and the Mirage of School Funding

— Voters are destined for disappointment

 

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Proponents of Measure 97 have consistently claimed that if the measure passes, it will generate an additional $3 billion annually for public education and other social services. Judging from the comments I’ve read in various Oregon newspapers, many people are falling for this argument.

Apparently none of the letter writers have ever watched a legislative appropriations hearing. These are the meetings where a tiny group of senior politicians sit in a back room and decide how to spend billions of dollars. I’ve watched hundreds of such hearings, and the most predictable outcome is that politicians will spend money in front of them on whatever they want.

Let’s just take a simple example. Oregon was one of 44 states that sued the tobacco industry in the mid-1990s to recover the health care costs associated with smoking. Plaintiffs claimed that the tobacco industry had long been imposing uncompensated costs on states in the form of health care for smokers who became sick from use of the product.

The suit was settled through adoption of a Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) with the four largest tobacco manufacturers. As part of the agreement, each state was to receive payments every year from 1998 through 2025.

According to the plaintiffs, the estimated $25 billion of MSA money was supposed to be used for tobacco prevention activities and health care subsidies necessary to treat smoking illnesses. But that was not a formal part of the agreement. Each state was free to use the funds in whatever way its state legislature approved.

In Oregon, total MSA funds received since 1998 have exceeded $1.26 billion. Almost all of it was spent on programs that had nothing to do with tobacco cessation or public health. Only 0.8 percent was appropriated for tobacco prevention programs.

How could this be? They promised!

Yes, Virginia, they promised. But every two years, 90 legislators show up in Salem, and they each have their own priorities. Once you put a pot of money on the table for them to spend, it’s game over.

Almost no one in the Capitol remembers what the MSA was, and, furthermore, they don’t care. They only care about spending money for the stuff they want right now.

Measure 97 is a horrible tax proposal, for many reasons. It unfairly targets a small subset of all businesses directly, but hits all businesses and all of us indirectly. It taxes sales but not profits. It would be the largest tax increase in Oregon history.

But if voters ignore these concerns and approve it anyway because they think it will increase funding for schools, they are destined for bitter disappointment.


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 September 2016 edition of the newsletter, “Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.”

Flexibility Is Key: The Next Generation of Parental Choice Solutions

Families in five states now have access to a special program called Educational Savings Accounts.

Educational Savings Accounts, or ESAs, allow parents to take money the state otherwise would spend on their children in the public system and put it on a restricted use debit card. Parents can spend this money on a wide variety of approved educational options, including private school, individual tutoring, online classes, and other services. Any money not used is rolled over for parents to spend in the future.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice surveyed Arizona families to see how they are choosing to spend the resources allocated for their kids. The survey found that more than a third of participating families used ESAs for multiple educational purposes, not just private school tuition. It also found that families saved a significant amount of their ESA money for future expenses.

This indicates that ESAs not only expand the learning options available to individual children, but they also encourage fiscal discipline within education spending.

Parents and lawmakers in nearly a dozen states, including Oregon, are working to make this flexible learning option available to more children. The next generation of education reform in America needs to embrace flexibility to meet the needs of every child, and Educational Savings Accounts are proving to be a simple but powerful way to do just that.

Mandating Common Core, High-Stakes Testing Drives Oregon Further into the “Bureaucratic Trap of Good Intentions”

The Oregon Department of Education currently requires Oregon school districts to align instruction and assessments with the Common Core State Standards. A bill now before the state legislature, HB 2835, would end this requirement, possibly helping to end the latest chapter in nearly forty years of national education reform failures and what I call Oregon’s decline into our own “bigger is better” top-down education reform trap.

I saw this decline begin here in 1991 when the legislature overwhelmingly enacted the Education Act for the Twenty-First Century. It was full of new committees, new high school CIM and CAM tests (which were eventually abandoned), and a promise from the legislature that it would produce “the best educated citizens in the nation by the year 2000.” So, how did that work out?

In 1999 the legislature created the Quality Education Commission, which led to adoption of the Quality Education Model. The Model proposed entirely theoretical prototype elementary, middle, and high schools that, again theoretically and with enough funding, would get 90% of our kids to state standards.

When these last two big reforms didn’t work, Governor John Kitzhaber proposed and the legislature created the Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB) in 2011 with the goal of unifying everything from early childhood through graduate school education. Of course, that goal can’t be accomplished without pushing power and control even farther away from the people who should matter most in education—parents, students, and teachers. This accelerated our decline into the “bigger is better” trap.

Why haven’t such revolutionary reform efforts in our K-12 education system achieved their goals? Because, according to the late John T. Wenders, Ph.D., 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.”

I’m sure that now-former Governor Kitzhaber and the people he appointed to the OEIB are very smart. But no such group can hope to design a system that meets the needs of all Oregon children and their parents. Mandating Common Core State Standards and their accompanying high-stakes Smarter Balanced tests simply moves us even further down into the “bigger is better” education reform trap.

Yong Zhao, Ph.D. is the Presidential Chair and Director of the Institute for Global and Online Education in the University of Oregon’s College of Education. He gave an entertaining and provocative presentation to the Senate Education Committee on February 10, 2015 in which he set out some compelling reasons for us to reject both Common Core and high-stakes testing.

One of Dr. Zhao’s examples is very relevant when considering the benefits of passing HB 2835. He told the Committee that imposing any “common” educational requirements promotes conformity in our children, when we should be helping them foster their own creativity, diversity, and entrepreneurial inclinations.

He noted that when he was a child in his Chinese village, the Common Core was knowing how to ride a water buffalo. The most important and valued jobs in that time and place revolved around agriculture. He couldn’t drive a water buffalo very well, so as he put it, they encouraged him to leave and go to Oregon.

In a 1991 Wall Street Journal column, “Education by Committee in Oregon,” Cascade Policy Institute Academic Advisor, former public elementary school teacher, and assistant professor of education Richard Meinhard, Ph.D. explained why the “revolutionary” Oregon Education Act for the Twenty-First Century was no such thing:

“…[T]o be ‘revolutionary,’ educational change must be systemic. It must reform the system, not just add to it. Oregon’s educational reformers are unwittingly legitimizing the very system that needs reform. Well-meaning politicians have once again increased state control over education in order to mandate desirable goals. The Oregon plan provides the nation with an important lesson in reform: how easy it is to fall into the bureaucratic trap of good intentions.”

This 1991 critique could just as easily be said about the current “revolutionary” reforms of Common Core and Smarter Balanced high-stakes testing. It’s time to stop increasing state control over education and start moving accountability and control down toward parents, students, and teachers.

We can start crawling out of Oregon’s “bigger is better” trap by prohibiting the Department of Education from imposing any standardized curriculum and testing regime on school districts. This can start by approving HB 2835.

Is Your Five-Year-Old Ready for Full-Day Kindergarten?

The Oregon State Senate is considering a bill that would lower Oregon’s compulsory, full-time school age from seven to five. Senate Bill 321 was heard in the Education Committee on March 5.

Most children start at least a half-day Kindergarten as five-year-olds, but not every five-year-old is ready for full-time school. According to a recent report by the National Center for Education Statistics, about six percent of five-to-six-year-olds nationwide are not enrolled in school. These children may need a little more time to be ready for a formal classroom setting.

Children are unique, and maturing at different rates is normal. Temperament, emotional maturity, life experiences, and family situations also can affect a child’s classroom readiness. Parents are in a better position to determine a young child’s abilities than an arbitrary standard set by state law.

Some opponents of SB 321 point out that there would be no protections for children who are not ready for a traditional classroom at five years of age. Their parents currently have the option to let them grow up a little first. This bill removes parental discretion.

Forcing children to start school too early for them can have long-lasting consequences. They may view themselves as failures, think they don’t like school, or find themselves playing a demoralizing game of catch-up with their classroom peers.

Parents, rather than state legislators, should decide when their preschool-aged kids are ready for full-time school.

Should Compulsory Schooling Start at Age Five?

Every state in the union has what are known as compulsory school attendance laws. Oregon currently requires that virtually every child attend school from age seven to age 18. A bill before the State Senate, SB 321, would decrease the compulsory school age from seven down to five.

Before deciding whether this is a good idea, it may be time to reconsider why we compel parents to send their children to school at all. We might ask ourselves some hard questions, including:

  • How does compulsion further our interest in encouraging a passion for learning in our children?
  • In a free society, shouldn’t we be looking for ways to reduce compulsion, rather than to increase it?
  • If compelling seven-to-18-year-olds to attend school isn’t working very well, why compel five- and six-year-olds to attend also?”

Some of the written testimony from professional educators in favor of SB 321 assumes that the bill would reduce the “compulsory education” age. But we can’t really compel students to learn, so is the next best thing compelling them to sit in classroom seats?

Schooling may facilitate good education, but they are not always the same thing. As Harvard Professor Lant Pritchett says, “Good governments do schooling, but nearly all bad governments do it, too.” He is talking here about different national governments since his field is global development, but the thought applies to our state and local governments as well.

Pritchett goes on to say, “We know that if you impose a top-down educational system, often it breaks down—you get a bureaucracy that doesn’t work, and the outcomes get worse than if you allow local control.” If this is true in Oregon, then former Governor John Kitzhaber’s flawed Oregon Education Investment Board approach may be doing more harm than good.

More and more Oregon parents and teachers are standing up to oppose top-down approaches such as new high-stakes tests designed to measure how well public schools are teaching the controversial Common Core Standards.

The so-called Smarter-Balanced tests are on track to be given to students in grades three through eight and high school juniors to measure how well they’ve mastered reading, math, writing, listening, research, and thinking. Official estimates are that over 60 percent of students may fail the tests this spring.

Dr. Yong Zhao, Director of Global and Online Education at University of Oregon, is a critic of both high-stakes testing and the Common Core Standards themselves. He gave an entertaining 51-minute presentation to the Senate Education Committee on February 10.

While Dr. Zhao doesn’t have a formal position on whether Oregon’s compulsory school age should be lowered, he does make the points that we shouldn’t make kids ready for Kindergarten; we should make Kindergarten ready for kids, and creative kids aren’t Kindergarten-ready because they don’t conform. Lowering the compulsory school age to five may put more kids in Kindergarten seats, but it will do nothing to make Kindergarten ready to meet their individual needs.

Dr. Zhao’s presentation stood in stark contrast to that of Oregon “education czar” Nancy Golden who spoke before him at the hearing, and that of Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction Rob Saxton who spoke after him. It should be noted that Golden and Saxton were handpicked by Governor Kitzhaber to help promote his top-down, birth-through-graduate school vision for education in Oregon.

Questioning the value of compulsory schooling is nothing new. Here is what a past president of the American Psychological Association, Knight Dunlap, said in his 1929 article, Is Compulsory Education Justified?:

“…education is a good thing for us, and so we wish to bestow its blessings on others. If they will not take it gladly, we will make them take it: for their own good…”

So, before we agree to reduce Oregon’s compulsory school age from seven down to five, let’s ask the hard questions about what our compulsory schooling system is really doing for, and to, the children it captures now.

Education Savings Accounts Should Be in Oregon’s School Choice Future

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, Education Savings Accounts were first passed by that state’s legislature in 2011 for special-needs children. Known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts there, the program was expanded in 2012 to children adopted out of the state foster system, children of active-duty military parents, and children in “D” and “F” failing schools. Children entering Kindergarten were added in 2013 and funding for the accounts was increased. Arizona parents can get all the information they need about these accounts from the state’s Department of Education.

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 chair 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, U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey (D) has long been a school choice advocate. Speaking 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 made possible by passage of a 1999 bill in a Republican-controlled legislature that was signed into law by a Democratic governor (John Kitzhaber).

In the 2015 state legislative session, Oregonians will have an opportunity to start down the ESA road with passage of House Bill 2770, 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 sponsor of the 2014 version of the bill, SB 1576, noted, “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 solutions for children, their parents, and Oregon’s future.

* From a letter by State Senator Tim Knopp to then Chair of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee Mark Hass requesting a hearing on SB 1576 during the January 2014 interim legislative hearing days. The hearing took place on January 16, 2014. Archived video is here.

(January 25-31, 2015 is National School Choice Week, an annual public awareness effort in support of effective education options for all children. An earlier version of this Commentary was published in January 2014.)

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