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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How Do Children Learn? Let Us Count the Ways

“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 $610 million in private funding to help more than 145,000 children nationwide.

While they don’t have much discretionary income (the average CSF-Portland family income is $39,000), CSF families always must pay part of their tuition themselves (Portland parents pay $1,799 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 $3,856 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 $1,497), 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.

(January 25-31, 2015 is National School Choice Week, an annual public awareness effort in support of effective education options for all children. Versions of this Cascade Commentary have been previously published.)

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Scaling Down: The Power of One

By Darla M. Romfo

Last fall I had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the Broad Prize for Urban Education. In the ensuing days, many bloggers and journalists weighed in with criticism, including one who pointed out that “although recent winners of the Broad Prize show positive results compared to many large urban districts, their scores are largely flat—or worse—over the past several years.”

I am sure this must be both disappointing and frustrating to Mr. and Mrs. Broad who made the fortune they are giving away by innovating, adapting, and always getting better. They wanted this prize to inspire the same kind of actions in public education.

Teddy Forstmann, who, along with John Walton, founded the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) in 1998, was a man cut from the same cloth as Mr. Broad. Ted hoped the demand demonstrated when parents of 1.25 million children applied for 40,000 partial scholarships to escape their assigned public school would get the ball rolling and bring about substantial educational improvement for all children within the four-year window for those first scholarships. In Ted’s experience, demand for a better product and a bit of competition led to an improved product. Ted was certainly frustrated with the snail’s pace of it all.

And by now everyone who has ever uttered the words “education reform” is a little frustrated. More than a decade later, billions more in taxpayer dollars, in addition to the billions heaped on by private philanthropy, has been spent to achieve largely mediocre to poor overall results. There are pockets of hope, and we do have much better data. Now we know there is not only an achievement gap between minorities and whites, but also between all U.S. students and children in other countries.

It’s not clear that if we had full blown school choice, the end of teacher tenure, higher standards, or whatever flavor of education reform you favor, that every child would have the opportunity to reach their full potential. Certainly, one or some combination of those things would help many children; but we would still have kids who live in poverty and very unsettled home situations coming to school every day with needs that are beyond what can be addressed by education reform alone.

One thing I have both experienced through relationships with students I’ve met through CSF and observed in the lives of others is that 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. I know Ted and John both experienced this with children they helped directly apart from their education reform efforts. John once told me on a school visit in Omaha 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.

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. Anyone who is willing to give of themselves to another human being will bring about change in that person and themselves. Isn’t that the real reason we are all here anyway?

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

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Imagine a World…2015

Imagine a world where we buy our groceries in government stores. We can only shop at the store nearest our house. If we want to shop somewhere else, we’re forced to move our family into another neighborhood―if we can afford it.

In this imaginary world, we elect food boards to oversee our grocery stores. And many of us think the food is free. Well, not quite. We all pay taxes to the government, which then recycles those dollars to grocery store districts and eventually down to our neighborhood stores. We think we eat pretty well, although the government spends five dollars for a gallon of milk and six-fifty for a loaf of bread. The bread is often stale and the milk is often sour.

Each district has a central office staff of specialists and administrators who work hard designing store shelves, checkout lanes, and (most importantly) the nutritional content of every food item. Since we’re a nation that separates Church and State, the big battles at food board meetings often revolve around whether stores can sell Christmas cookies.

Now, imagine that voters decide to give the government less money for the public food system. Suddenly, food stores find themselves in a crisis. There isn’t enough tax money to keep food district central bureaucracies intact. Stores don’t have enough money to keep all the clerks employed. Food superintendents are faced with the difficult task of eliminating some items from the shelves.

How could we possibly feed ourselves without the government taxing us, building big brick food buildings, and telling us where to shop?

If this imaginary world―and its problems―sounds familiar, you’re way ahead of me. It’s the world of our public school system. It’s the world most of us grew up in. Our parents grew up in the same world, but children now are growing up in a different world.

We can no longer afford to dump more money into a system that isn’t keeping pace with the progress all around us. Technology has opened limitless ways for students to gain knowledge and skills and to interact with their instructors and peers. The landscape of educational options centered on the needs and aspirations of individual students is far more diverse than it was even ten years ago. And many of these new options can actually save taxpayers real money.

Many advocate that we should lead the world in education spending. But you don’t get to be the competitive leader in any industry by being the world’s highest-cost producer. Don’t you want to be the producer with the highest quality, but at an affordable cost? The driving force to achieve high quality, while keeping costs down, is the profit motive. But that’s exactly the motive that doesn’t exist in our public school system.

Why aren’t we worried about a tax revolt decimating our local grocery store shelves? It’s because our grocery stores are private. They’re subject to intense competition, and each of us has virtually unlimited choices about where we shop.

For those who can’t afford food, we don’t build government food stores. We give them food stamps, and they shop in the same stores and for the same products that everyone else does. In essence, our public schools are the equivalent of the former Soviet Union’s collective farms. Communism said government should own and run the food stores―and the farms. The result was a nation that couldn’t feed itself.

We don’t have to ask whether to replace our current public school system with a private one. We can simply let education dollars be spent where the customers (parents) think they should go.

Please don’t let the details of any specific “school choice” proposal stop you from accepting the concept. Instead, let’s figure out why so many of our tax dollars don’t reach the classroom―and why nearly half the people who work for our public school system don’t teach. Let’s look for ways to put the children first and the system second.

The only proven way to accomplish these things is through competition and parental choice. Spending more dollars in the current system will just get us more of the same. Many states are broke, preventing them from spending more money on public schools. And many parents are fed up, wondering why their kids are underperforming or unmotivated in K-12 schools and unprepared for their college courses and future careers.

School choice has entered a new world. Because Americans are increasingly vocal about providing parents at every income level with the ability to choose their children’s schools, states are adopting broad-based school choice initiatives. Every child who drops out of school, or who graduates functionally illiterate, is being tossed into the sea without a lifeboat. If you think rearranging the deck chairs on this ship will save those children, think again. The way of the future is to put the power of educational choice back into the hands of parents, where it belongs.

(January 25-31, 2015 is National School Choice Week, an annual public awareness effort in support of effective education options for all children. Different versions of this Commentary have been published starting in 1994.)

More Tax Dollars for College ― Or Prepare Students to Succeed There?

Oregon voters are being asked this November to authorize spending more tax dollars to help some students afford an arguably unaffordable higher education. Measure 86 will create a permanent fund to subsidize certain students, which can be financed several ways including through state general obligation bonds. Any bonds issued under the so-called Oregon Opportunity Initiative will have to be paid off over 30 years, primarily by income tax payers, not by students. Only the earnings on bond proceeds and other funds will be available for subsidies.

There are several problems with this proposal:

First, Measure 86 does nothing to reduce the overall cost of higher education in Oregon. In fact, it actually could increase those costs as more taxpayer dollars flow into the system.

Second, even if the measure does help some students afford college, we don’t know if they will be prepared to succeed there, or if they will need costly and time-consuming remedial courses to learn what they should have learned in high school.

Our educational leaders in Salem anticipated the need to prepare students better for college years ago, and they took steps that they hoped would address the issue. In 2007 the state Board of Education adopted The Oregon Diploma, which was intended to ensure that students are prepared to enroll in postsecondary education without the need for remedial courses.

The Oregon Diploma “…requirements are designed to better prepare each student for success in college, work, and citizenship. To earn a diploma, students will need to successfully complete the credit requirements, demonstrate proficiency in the Essential Skills, and meet the personalized learning requirements…A phase-in schedule (2007 – 2014) has been created to allow students, families, schools and teachers to adequately prepare to meet these new requirements.”

Apparently assuming that The Oregon Diploma would get all students college-ready by 2014, Governor John Kitzhaber recommended, and the Legislature adopted in 2011, what has come to be known as Oregon’s 40-40-20 educational attainment goal. By 2025, this state policy aims for 40 percent of Oregonians to have a four-year baccalaureate degree or higher, 40 percent to have an associate’s degree or certificate in a skilled occupation, and the remaining 20 percent to have at least a “college and career-ready” high school diploma or its equivalent.

So, how are we doing in getting to that 40-40-20 goal by 2025? Three national reports issued over the last two months raise serious questions as to whether most Oregon high school graduates are coming anywhere close to being “college and career-ready.”

First we learned that only 30 percent of Oregon’s 2014 high school graduates are deemed “college ready” based on their American College Testing Organization (ACT) college admissions examinations in all four tested subjects of English, Reading, Math, and Science.

Then, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report revealed that “Oregon is one of the very worst states when it comes to preparing students for college and the work force.” It noted that “Oregon ranks in the bottom 10 when it comes to getting students ready for college and careers.” We earned a grade of “D” in Academic Achievement and an “F” in Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness.

Finally, we found out that only 46 percent of Oregon public high school students who took the SAT college entrance tests scored high enough to demonstrate that they are prepared for college.

So, it looks like Oregon has struck out three times when it comes to meeting The Oregon Diploma goal of better preparing each student for “success in college, work, and citizenship” by 2014. We have eleven more years to see if the Governor’s 40-40-20 goal pans out, but it isn’t looking good so far.

Before we encourage more taxpayer spending on higher education through Measure 86, shouldn’t we find ways for our public school system to prepare most college-bound students to actually succeed there?

As I’ve noted before, that won’t take more money, because research shows that spending more money doesn’t lead to better educational outcomes; it just rewards the adults who get paid by the system. Instead, we should take the top-down control away from bureaucrats in Salem and give it to parents and students through a genuine system of school choice. Then watch our college readiness numbers climb. Otherwise, we’re just paying twice for remedial courses to teach college students what they should have learned in high school.

Removing the need for those remedial courses could help more students than Measure 86 ever would, and it should help Oregon taxpayers by reducing the cost and the time it takes to educate college students.

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

Testimony on Measure 86 to Portland Community College Board

The following testimony was presented to the Portland Community College Board at their meeting on September 18, 2014.  The Board then voted 5 to 2 in favor of a Resolution giving their support to the Oregon Opportunity Initiative, Measure 86 on the November ballot.

Testimony before the Portland Community College Board in Opposition to the Oregon Opportunity Initiative (Measure 86):

Good evening, Chair Palm and members of the Board. My name is Steve Buckstein. I’m Senior Policy Analyst and founder of Cascade Policy Institute, a public policy research organization based in Portland.
I urge you to reject this Resolution for the following reasons:

First, you have no assurance that any funds generated by the Opportunity Initiative won’t simply replace funds the legislature already allocates to higher education. Plus, there’s no assurance that one community college student will benefit. Decisions about what, if any, funding will benefit specific students will be left to some unnamed public body, subject to the same lobbying efforts the legislature faces now.

Second, even if the Opportunity Initiative helps some students in the short run, it will make the whole system less affordable in the long run. Such third-party payments from states and the federal government are a big part of the reason that college costs and student debt are rising rapidly.

I’m sure you work hard to keep student prices under control. But, to the extent that Measure 86 puts more taxpayer money in student pockets, it will take some pressure off you to do so.

Third, I’m not sure voters understand that even if the Treasurer’s optimistic investment assumptions for Measure 86 work out, income taxpayers will be on the hook to repay all the principal and interest on any bonds issued by the state for decades into the future.

Before asking taxpayers to repay those bonds for the next thirty years, you might consider how technology is beginning to reduce higher education costs.

One Oregonian who recognizes the power of the coming technological revolution is the chief sponsor of the Oregon Opportunity Initiative himself, Treasurer Wheeler. Last October in a public meeting, he criticized the university system for being…

“…very slow to adapt the opportunities around technology.” He said that “there’s a lot of institutional inertia in the university system just as there is in Salem. And, all of these new technologies have opened up new windows to learning that do not require a student to even be in the same state.” He noted that online programs such as iTunes University on his own smartphone “don’t cost…a cent” and are a “game changer” that “undercut the entire economic model of the university system as it currently exists today.” *

So, if technology will put downward pressure on college costs, why saddle Oregon taxpayers with perhaps one hundred million dollars or more in debt over the next 30 years to fund the current high-cost model?

Finally, based on recent ACT test scores, only 30 percent of Oregon’s high school graduates are competent enough at English, reading, math and science to pass freshman college classes. Before you encourage more spending on higher education, shouldn’t we find ways for our public school system to prepare most college-bound students to actually succeed there? Otherwise, we’re just paying twice for remedial courses to teach college students what they should have learned in high school.

Wouldn’t you rather see every new PCC student ready for college-level courses, rather than dump more of your limited budget into teaching them what they should already know?

In conclusion, whatever the value of a college degree is to an individual, it’s becoming clear that Opportunity Initiative state funding of those degrees is likely to cost taxpayers more than they gain. I urge you to reject the Oregon Opportunity Initiative.

Thank you.

* Ted Wheeler, Washington County Public Affairs Forum, October 28, 2013.
59-second answer: youtube.com/watch?v=ZMPMtmEyieg.
Entire hour-long presentation with Q&A: youtube.com/watch?v=l1hYXGA3CLA.
Relevant question starts at 52:16.

Cascade Policy Institute Encourages a ‘No’ Vote on Measure 86

The Board of Directors for the Cascade Policy Institute recently voted to oppose Measure 86, known as the Oregon Opportunity Initiative, on November’s ballot.

Measure 86 would require the creation of a Permanent Fund for Post-Secondary Education, which can be funded a number of ways, including by the state selling general obligation bonds. Earnings on the Fund can be used to subsidize certain students, but it will be taxpayers who are saddled with paying off any bonds for 30 years, with interest.

Further, only 30 percent of Oregon’s 2014 high school graduates showed readiness for college, based on ACT college admissions tests.

“We shouldn’t spend more money on higher education until our public school system prepares most college-bound students to actually succeed there,” said Cascade Founder and Senior Policy Analyst Steve Buckstein. “Otherwise, we’re just paying twice for remedial courses to teach college students what they should have learned in high school.”

Measure 86 is based on what one researcher calls “one of America’s most durable myths…that the more people who graduate from college, the more the economy will grow.” However, Richard Vedder, author of the book “Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much,” notes that conclusion may depend on how those educations are paid for. He found statistical evidence that states which provide more higher education funding actually have slightly lower economic growth rates than states which provide less.

“Individuals know their needs better than politicians do, so leaving the money in private hands produces better results,” said Buckstein.

Finally, even the chief sponsor of Measure 86, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler,  criticized the university system for being slow to adapt to new opportunities in technology which can make education cheaper and easier for students*.

“As technology drives down higher education costs, why saddle Oregon taxpayers with perhaps $100 million or more in debt for the next 30 years to subsidize the old, high-cost economic model? The answer is we shouldn’t,” said Buckstein.

* Video of Treasurer Wheeler’s statement is online at:
youtube.com/watch?v=ZMPMtmEyieg
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