Bring Oregon into the School Choice Age

What makes Oregon special? The slogan “Oregon. We Love Dreamers” invokes images of idealism and innovation. But neither exists for many of our school-age children and their parents. Education Week ranks our public school system 43rd in the nation. Our overall grade is just C, and we rate a dismal D in academic achievement.

Our education establishment is attempting to improve itself by integrating all pre-Kindergarten through graduate school education in the state. However, this top-down approach likely will fail, just as the vaunted CIM and CAM testing regime that began in 1991 failed.

A better, bottom-up approach is being enacted in many states: letting parents have more choices about where their children go to school. Oregon is behind in this national movement, but we can catch up. January 27th through February 2nd  is National School Choice Week, which highlights the need for effective educational options for all children.

Planned by a diverse and nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations, National School Choice Week features more than 3,500 independently planned events across all 50 states. At least twelve events are planned in Oregon, including a School Choice Policy Picnic in Portland.

Students have different talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The educational options available to meet their needs are far more diverse today than even a few years ago. Freedom in education is good for all children, not just for children deemed by the state to be “at risk” or in “failing schools.”

While Oregon is behind the school choice curve, we have made some progress. In 1999, then-Governor John Kitzhaber signed Oregon’s charter school bill into law, resulting in more than 100 semi-independent public charter schools operating today. In 2011, several more school choice related laws were signed by Governor Kitzhaber during his current term. They made it easier for students to enroll in neighboring public school districts, loosened enrollment restrictions for online charter schools, and added organizations that can charter schools in addition to their local districts.

And the push for school choice is far from just a conservative or Republican movement. A growing number of liberals and Democrats are now on board, including Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker who spoke about it in Portland back in 2001. One of his more recent statements reads in part:

“One of the worst sentiments in our nation is this toxic resignation to a school system that fails children. We have become comfortable with, not mediocrity, we have become comfortable with failure….We were not born for mediocrity. We were not born to fit in. We were born to stand out. This is the call of America. This is the call of our country, and our children say it every single day, like a call to our consciousness; like a demand upon our moral imagination. They say it from Newark to Oakland, those five words: Liberty and justice for all. But we are failing in that….

“…[W]oe to the people who want to protect the status quo. Woe to the people who want to defend mediocrity and failure. Woe to the people who want to attack others for trying a different way.

“We are a nation that was born from innovation; innovation of our ideals, innovation of agriculture, innovation in industry, innovation in science and technology. Why has the one sector of our society most in need of innovation been left in the agrarian age, and that is education? No more!”

This week—National School Choice Week—join with Cory Booker and the many Oregonians who say “No more!” to the lack of school choice for our children.

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

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