How Would You Spend $100 Million?

How would you spend $100 million? If you’re Mark Zuckerberg, founder of the most successful social network on the planet, you spend it trying to improve one of the most unsuccessful public school districts in America: the one in Newark, New Jersey.

In 2010 Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark Public School System on condition that then-Mayor Corey Booker, a Democrat, and Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, directed how the money was spent. Booker was a school choice supporter, and Christie took on the powerful teachers unions.

Five years later, Zuckerberg’s money has apparently been spent on consultants and teacher compensation, with little to show in the way of better educational outcomes. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed explained how this was just one more failed top-down reform attempt by private and non-profit donors working with government education systems.

Booker and Christie were unable to fundamentally change the top-down school system that put bureaucrats and unions, rather than parents, in control.

It’s amazing what lessons can be (re)learned when you spend $100 million dollars in ways guaranteed not to improve education. Hopefully, all of us will learn from this failure that you can’t reform the public school system just by giving it more money. Next time, give the money to the parents to spend on the schools and educational resources of their choice.

What Gets Kids “Ready for College and Life?”

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

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

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

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

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

New Orleans’ Miracle School District

Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the southeastern United States, displacing more than 372,000 school-aged children. Today, New Orleans’ school population has returned to more than two-thirds its pre-storm level, but a lot has changed for the better in the public school district.

Before Katrina, a Louisiana state legislator called New Orleans “one of the worst-run public school systems in America.” Almost two-thirds of students attended a “failing school.” After Katrina, the state legislature transferred more than 100 low-performing Orleans Parish schools to the Recovery School District. Now, the district has 57 charter schools operating under nonprofit charter management organizations.

According to The Washington Examiner, barely more than half of New Orleans public school students graduated before Katrina. Today, almost all New Orleans students attend charter schools. In the 2013-14 school year, three out of four students graduated on time, and fewer than seven percent attend a “failing school.”

This amazing turnaround is due to the hard work of teachers, administrators, local and state leaders, and parents who rebuilt New Orleans’ public school system from the ground-up, with the vision and determination to create “an all-choice school district with high-quality schools.” The unprecedented success of New Orleans’ Recovery School District serves as a model for education reform efforts across the country. Parental choice, flexibility for educators, and innovation in management really can achieve the impossible.

U.S. Sees Huge Growth in Homeschooling

What does it mean for parents and kids today?

The Center for Education Reform reports that since 2003, the number of homeschooled kids in the U.S. “has jumped nearly 62 percent with 1,773,000 students being educated in the comfort and flexibility of their own homes.” Cascade’s publications director Kathryn Hickok discussed this trend on KUIK’s The Jayne Carroll Show on May 27. Listen to Jayne and Kathryn talk about the increasing popularity of homeschooling and what resources are available to parents today!

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.

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.

“Don’t Say You Represent the Students”

Republican politicians may no longer be the loudest critics of teachers unions. Influential Democrats are now speaking up also, such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Here’s what he said in a recent interview:

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

Cuomo said the teachers union is “more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it is supposed to be serving.”

“Somewhere along the way, I believe we flipped the purpose of this,” Cuomo said. “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers.

“This was a program to educate kids….”

Responding to a union member who said he represents the students:

“No, you don’t,” Cuomo said he told the person. “You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.”

If the liberal Democrat Governor of New York can say such things, shouldn’t Oregon’s Governor do the same? After all, he’s the same Governor who signed Oregon’s 1999 charter school bill into law against the objections of―guess who? The teachers union.

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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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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.)

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