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Sometimes Magic Happens

Matt WingardThursday, April 5, 2007, was a great day for me personally. I was very proud to be a part of this hearing, which you can listen to here (starting at 1:36:50):

A mostly African American delegation from Portland traveled to the Oregon State Capitol to testify in support of House Bill 3010, the Freedom to Choose My School Grant program. The bill would create a pilot project to allow 1,000 low-income students to take the state funding for their education and go to any school, public or private in Portland.

The bill got a hearing because State Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn) believes that low-income residents of Portland deserve an opportunity to be heard, and she chairs the House Subcommittee on Education Innovation.

We presented subcommittee members with copies of Cascade Policy Institute’s summary of three decades of educational failure in Portland’s only primarily Black high school, entitled Leaving Most Children Behind: 30 Years of Education Reform at Jefferson. The report details the stark graduation rates in the community: Nearly 50% of African Americans and Latinos drop out. Our research estimates that more than 7,000 Northeast Portland students have gone through the Portland Public School system over the last 30 years and either dropped out or failed to leave school able to read and do math at a 12th-grade level.

Damon Miller went to school in Portland and told the Committee, “I did graduate, but I watched more than 60% of my fellow African American males not graduate-walk across the stage with empty diplomas.” As I told the committee, “Those people didn’t just disappear. You see them at the unemployment and welfare lines when we fail to deliver the education people need and want. HB 3010 is a pilot project designed to answer the question: Do low-income parents want access to school choices outside of what they are being offered today?”

One after another, members of our delegation stepped forward to challenge the status quo. Esther Hinson, a teacher who helps dropouts get their G.E.D., told the Committee, “It’s time to break the cycle, and I think school choice is the way to go.”

Jomo Greenidge dropped out of school in Portland even though he had Mensa-level SAT scores and was tutoring other students in college-level math. However, his GPA was low. “My problem was not that I wasn’t smart or that I didn’t love to learn,” Greenidge testified. “My problem was that my school was a bad fit for me. And I did not graduate and I did not go to college for seven more years.”

Greenidge still tutors kids in the area who feel trapped in a public school that doesn’t work for them. “Sometimes as educators we have to look at ourselves and say maybe we are not the best solution for the kids we are dealing with, Greenridge said. “HB 3010 will provide an opportunity for some kids to thrive in an environment that would suit them. Without this bill you take a position of arrogance that says, ‘We are the best at what we do, and what we do will serve all of our kids.'”

Kathryn Hickok, from the Children Scholarship Fund- Portland (facilitated by Cascade Policy Institute), described the privately funded partial-tuition scholarships they have provided to hundreds of children from low-income families. She submitted letters from a number of grateful CSF students.

Hickok told the Committee 29% of current CSF families would benefit from HB 3010. “Low income families care about their children very much and they will make any sacrifice they can to choose the best environment for their children,” she said. “They are making huge financial sacrifices right now in our program. Our Scholarships average about $1,500, which is not a lot of money. But that makes the difference between their children being at a public school that they do not like for whatever reason, that’s not a good fit for them, or being in a school where they are actually thriving.”

Abel Araya is a CSF student using his scholarship to attend a private high school in Portland. Araya told the Committee he plans to attend college after graduation. “Growing up my parents have always wanted me to be successful and get a good education,” Araya testified. “CSF has put me in an atmosphere where that is possible. I know because of CSF I am a better person, a better student, a better athlete and a better leader. I hope they understand how much they have impacted my life. “They have given my family a sense of relief and have provided me with a better education and the confidence that I will succeed.”

Smith Williams, a parent of five children who grew up in Portland, reminded the Committee that a recent candidate for Oregon Governor rented an apartment in an area where he wanted his child to attend the local public school. Williams pointed out that if you have money you can do things that other people can not do and HB 3010 would provide opportunities for parents who don’t have those kinds of resources.

Senior Pastor Fred Woods testified about his 18-years working with juveniles in the parole and probation system where he consistently noticed the kids were all low academic achievers. “What I found was that if you’re low academically there’s an increase in pregnancy, crime, violence, drugs, homelessness,” Pastor Woods testified. “Is it fair because I come from a low-income family that I can’t receive a quality education?”

Maura Ciota runs a non-profit programs for low-income youths in the community affected by the bill. “This is a bi-partisan bill,” she testified. “Competition isn’t bad. I’ve got a lot of union members in my family and I support this bill…I believe very strongly that everyone has the right to have a choice and I want all of our kids to get the best education that they can.”

Damon Miller went to school in Portland “I did graduate but I watched more than 60% of my fellow minority African-American males not graduate—walk across the stage with empty diplomas,” he testified.

Others who testified in person or by written statement in support of HB 3010 included Portland businessman Tony Stacy, State Representative Jerry Krummel, Portland parent Cynthia Traylor and Former Trailblazer Michael Harper.

Community activist Renee Kimball spoke for the entire delegation when she asked, “Are we such a small, tiny-minded state that we are afraid to try a pilot project with a thousand kids that may work out to save a thousand lives?

HB 3010 is co-sponsored by 29 Republicans but faces an uphill battle because the Oregon Legislature is controlled by Democrats. School choice is supported with a passion by both Democrat and Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Utah, Wisconsin, Florida, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere. This first hearing in Salem was a crucial step in an Oregon civil rights movement that is long overdue.

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