Tag: School Choice

What is Going On Cases Rise and Oregon Schools Open-cm

What is Going On? Cases Rise and Oregon Schools Open

By Helen Doran

“What is going on?” That’s what many Oregon parents are asking as their kids struggle with online learning, all while public officials flip-flop on education policies during a wave of COVID-19 cases.

On October 30th, Governor Kate Brown added to the mayhem. On the same day the state announced a record breaking number of cases, the governor rolled out relaxed safety standards for reopening Oregon elementary schools. Since then, the case count has climbed higher by the day.

The Oregon Department of Education explained that the change in direction was because the benefit of in-person education outweighed the risk of spreading the disease. But why was this announced when cases are at an all time high…after two months of distance learning?

The governor’s relaxed standards at a time when cases are trending dramatically in the wrong direction is a cognitive dissonance for exhausted parents who have been told that keeping their kids behind a laptop was for the greater good.  Students and families can’t afford to ride the ODE’s wave of ever-changing priorities and promises. A money-back guarantee would be a lifeline for students struggling in the public school system and needing a solution urgently. Oregon needs to make school choice a priority during the 2021 legislative session. Children’s futures depend on it.

Helen Doran is a Program Assistant, External Affairs at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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Poll Shows Support for Parents to Use State Education Funding for School Choice

By Kathryn Hickok

A RealClear Opinion poll released at the end of September revealed that parents with children in school increasingly—and overwhelmingly—favor the concept of school choice. More than 2,000 registered voters were asked this question: 

“Recent federal legislation gave governors new funding they can use for K-12 education. Some governors have let families control the funds for the purchase of education technology and materials, private school tuition, and home education. Would you support or oppose your governor sending the funding directly to families and allowing them to choose how to use those funds to support their child’s education?”

Seventy-eight percent of public school parents and 79% of non-public school parents supported that statement.

As families today struggle with school situations that aren’t meeting their children’s learning needs, options have suddenly become necessary for many parents, especially low-income and single parents. If their zoned public schools aren’t working for their children or families, Oregon parents should get a kind of “money-back guarantee” that will enable them to make other arrangements. One simple way to do this would be an Education Savings Account program, like those already operating in other states. ESA programs give parents control of a portion of their state’s allocated education funding, which they can use to pay for out-of-pocket education expenses.

An ESA program would be a lifeline for Oregon families whose kids are not being served well by their zoned public schools. The purpose of education funding should be educating students, and all parents should be empowered to obtain a quality education for their kids.

: Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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I was homeschooled. Here is why I support school choice.

By Helen Doran

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents now find themselves adding the position of “teacher” to their LinkedIn profiles. According to a recent Gallup poll, 1 in 10 American families are now officially homeschooling. Many more are supplementing the school system’s online programs with additional learning in the home or with “pandemic pods.”

What has become abundantly clear through this unconventional year of education is that a “one size fits all” education cannot be the policy of the future. Parents have had a closeup view of the quality of their children’s education. Many now see the need for change. In fact, 44% of public school families are considering making changes to how their children learn this fall, according to a September poll by Heart + Mind Strategies.

My family is the perfect example of why choice is the best policy of the future, especially during this period of distance learning. My mother homeschooled four children for religious and quality reasons, two of us all the way through high school. Each of our K-12 educations looked dramatically different and utilized various online classes, tutors, and private education; but they led each of us on our own unique paths to success.

This flexibility allowed us to dive deeply into our interests and to structure our learning in a way that enabled each of us to thrive. However, my point is not to advertise the benefits of homeschooling, but rather, to emphasize the uniqueness of each child’s educational needs. This has been made painstakingly clear by distance learning. Some children are thriving at home with a break from traditional learning. But many are seeing their grades and well-being suffer dramatically by traditional schools’ attempts to teach virtually. In fact, 59% of teens think that online learning is worse than in-person.

My family was lucky. Our parents could afford the time and money to choose the type of education we each needed, whether that be online, one-on-one, or private. But many families are not so fortunate, which leads to the difficult conversation of inequity. A child’s unique needs should not be a discussion merely for those endowed with the necessary resources and flexibility to consider them. Shouldn’t every child be given the option to choose?

School choice is not a new idea. But as parents’ frustration mounts over the inability of public schools to educate effectively during COVID-19, the concept of giving parents a portion of their state’s per-student education funding so they can choose the resources that work best for them has increased in popularity. Opponents of parental choice argue that such legislation favors middle-class families and draws funding away from the public schools. But education choice laws can be designed to be fiscally neutral or even net positive for local school districts. If the amount of funding provided to a withdrawing student is less than what would have been spent to educate that student in the public system, both students and school districts can be made better off.

School choice frees students from being coveted dollar signs in the state budget and instead allows any kid the option to chase his or her dream education. Isn’t that what equity is about? Equal opportunity? Access to education should be equitable, flexible, and focused on supporting the student, not the system. School choice is the fastest, most efficient path to that goal.

Helen Doran is Program Assistant for External Affairs at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.

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Achieving Equity: Oregon Students Deserve a Money-Back Guarantee

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

On September 21, 2020, Oregon’s Senate heard policy proposals to advance equity in education. Senators seeking the quickest and most effective way to achieve equity during this pandemic should flip the state’s funding model. Instead of funding the public school system, the state should support students directly by providing each student as much as $10,500 from the State School Fund.

My fifth grader in Portland Public Schools just got his daily COVID-19 class schedule, and there’s a lot of alone time. On a typical day, he meets with his classroom teacher over Zoom for 75 minutes over the 6.25 hour day. There’s a half-hour “morning meeting,” 30 minutes to go over language arts and social studies, and 15 minutes to discuss math. Nearly three-quarters of the time he’s “in school” he’s actually watching videos posted by his teacher or working on his own.

Governor Kate Brown and the school system frequently remind us, “We’re all in this together.” But, if you talk to parents and kids, many feel like they’re all on their own. On their own to find space for their kids to work. On their own to buy the laptops, printers, webcams, microphones, and headphones to support “online learning.” On their own to pay their broadband providers to supply enough bandwidth to support multiple people video conferencing at the same time. On their own to balance their jobs or job hunts with the school’s Zoom-on, Zoom-off daily schedule.

When our politicians and policymakers say, “We’re all in this together,” what they’re really saying is, “Tighten your belt and toughen up.” For example, when parents tried to enroll their children in online charter schools with a long history of distance learning, the Oregon Education Association lobbied against lifting an enrollment cap. The union argued even a modest lifting of the cap would deny funding to public school districts. To them, our kids are just numbers fed into a formula that funds the system. Rather than working with existing money, they are demanding even more spending on the public school system.

Elizabeth Thiel, the president of Portland’s teachers’ union, says in order for schools to re-open to students, federal and state taxpayers must fund more “investments” in overhauling school ventilation systems, buying personal protective equipment for teachers, and “doubling or more” the number of teachers to allow small group instruction.

On average, Oregon school districts receive about $10,500 per student from the State School Fund. If students aren’t getting instruction from their public schools, they should get that money back to receive instruction elsewhere. States like Oklahoma and South Carolina have already taken advantage of similar ideas by reallocating much of their federal stimulus dollars directly to families to help them adapt to this school year.

Instead of waiting for DC to deliver more federal money, Oregon must put families first by allowing education dollars to follow children to the school that works best for them—whether that’s a traditional district-​run public school, charter school, private school, home school, or learning “pod.”

Think of it as a money-back guarantee. If the public school isn’t working for your kids or your family, you should have a right to take that money and spend it where it works with your child’s needs and your family’s schedule. If enough students leave the public system, the smaller class sizes demanded by Ms. Thiel can be achieved without doubling the number of teachers on the public payroll.

Direct funding of students reduces inequities in school systems because it allows all students to have access to education alternatives. Almost 60% of public charter school students in the U.S. are Black or Hispanic. Imagine what these families could do with as much as $10,500 per student to spend on educational expenses. If equity is the goal, school choice through direct funding is the surest and quickest path.

If your local grocery store doesn’t re-open or can’t keep its shelves stocked, families can take their money elsewhere. So why are families locked into schools that don’t fit their needs? Let’s give a money-back guarantee to every student and their struggling families. Education funding is intended to help children learn, not to entrench the education establishment.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He can be reached at eric@cascadepolicy.org.

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Emancipate the Students

By John A. Charles, Jr.

The state legislature is seeking policy proposals for “equity in education.” Here’s an idea: how about a money-back guarantee for public schools?

The K-12 system is based on the assumption that all students should attend neighborhood public schools. Even in the best of times, that wasn’t working for many families. Now the assigned schools aren’t even open; the governor has mandated online learning.

Virtual education has some benefits, but also imposes new costs for parents. They are now part of the educational workforce, except they’re not getting compensated.

There is a solution. School districts are funded from three primary sources: the state school fund, the federal government, and local property taxes. The state share alone averages about $10,000 per student annually. The legislature should offer parents a refund of the $10,000 if they leave the public school system. This would instantly make the departing families better off, while reducing crowded conditions for those students who remain. With fewer students, it would be easier for public schools to restore classroom education. Everyone wins. One system cannot satisfy all needs. The best way to give families more options is to provide them with the equivalent of a Food Stamp card upon request, and let them swipe it for the instructional services they need.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.

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Oregon Students Deserve Stability

By Helen Doran

Oregon guidelines for the 2020 fall semester have been remarkably inconsistent, causing confusion and mayhem for faculty, parents, and students alike. The Oregon Department of Education recently released new guidelines that allow students with special needs to have limited in-person instruction but with reduced hours and class size. This includes students with disabilities, English language learners, and those enrolled in career technical education (CTE) programs.

But even these guidelines are dependent on the absence of Covid-19 cases among staff and students for two weeks. This doesn’t guarantee a stable learning environment for students that need stability the most.

The guidelines also fail to explicitly address those affected by the decision to continue virtual learning in the fall. What happens to the student experiencing homelessness who has no access to a hotspot? What about the single mother who has to choose between keeping a job and staying at home with her child?

It’s time to face the reality that Oregon’s public school system cannot guarantee a “one-size-fits-all” solution for students this fall. A money-back guarantee for K-12 education would go a long way in empowering parents to find the stability they need in uncertain times.

Every parent and every child find themselves uniquely affected by the pandemic. They deserve unique solutions too. Let’s put the money in the hands of the parents, not the system.

Helen Doran is a Program Assistant at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research center.

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A Money-Back Guarantee for Oregon Students

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

Oregon public school students are not likely to return to their classrooms this fall, with Portland Public Schools bracing parents for at least a semester of online classes. Even if they return to campus, PPS students face a two-day-on, two-day-off schedule. The uncertainty and chaos partially explain the results of a June survey conducted by USA Today and Ipsos that reported 60% of parents are likely to continue homeschooling this fall even if schools reopen. If a large portion of the population opts out of public schools this year, what happens to all that money?

Funds for Oregon schools come from a complex mix of state, local, and federal sources. On average, school districts receive about $10,500 per student from the State School Fund. The figure below shows that districts in Multnomah County spend about $8,600 per student in instruction, which accounts for about half (or less) of total public school spending. If students aren’t getting instruction from their public schools, they should get that money back to receive instruction elsewhere. Imagine what families could do with $8,600 a year to spend on educational expenses.

Total expenditures per student (ADMr)
Multnomah County school districts, 2019-20 budget

Source: Multnomah County Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission

Because district funding depends on how many students attend school in a district, public schools have a keen interest in maintaining or expanding public school enrollment. In written testimony to the legislature, the state’s teachers union and school employees union opposed increased enrollment in online charter schools. They claimed that increased enrollment in charter schools would “reduce the funding that districts need.” Governor Kate Brown closed online charters along with brick and mortar schools in part because increased charter enrollment would “impact school funding for districts across Oregon.” For the unions and the governor, students are not kids seeking an engaging education, they are merely a source of funds to fuel the public school system.

Public education should fund students’ education instead of the education system. The money should follow the child, wherever he or she may choose to go. If a student chooses the public school, then the funds should flow to the public school. If a student chooses a private school or a charter school, then the funds should be used to offset those costs. Families of homeschoolers should receive funding to offset their out-of-pocket education expenses. If that seems obvious, that’s because it is obvious.

Think of it as a form of money-back guarantee. If you’re happy with your public school, stay there. But, if the public school isn’t working for your child, you should be able to get your money back and spend it where it works. In July, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos suggested rather than “pulling funding” from schools, the government is considering “allowing families…[to] take that money and figure out where their kids can get educated if their schools are going to refuse to open.” Many parents will find $8,600 to spend on education can go a long way if they shop around.

This isn’t a radical idea. It’s how higher education works for millions of college students. They can take their Pell Grants, GI Bill funds, and other financial aid to just about any school they want. Why is K-12 “financial aid” contingent on attending a bureaucratically assigned public school?

The practice of assigning students to schools based on street addresses is inherently unfair. Wealthier neighborhoods have better-funded schools with better measures of student achievement, while poorer neighborhoods have run-down schools with dismal academic performance.

The pandemic has exposed our state and local governments as broken. They only “work” during a booming economy, when wasted money and misplaced priorities are obscured by widespread prosperity. But when effective public services are needed most, our government institutions have ground to a halt and, in some cases, made things worse. Now more than ever, families should control their education funds to find schooling solutions that match their children’s needs, their work schedules, and their health concerns. A money-back guarantee of $8,600 per student would go a long way toward finding those solutions.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.

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School Choice Means Equitable Funding

By Cooper Conway

Last week, the United States officially surpassed 4 million documented coronavirus cases. With only a few weeks before students return to school, parents in Oregon are scrambling to find—or create—a safe and effective learning environment for their children.

Of the options available, some parents believe they have found the best solution for their family with micro-schools.

Micro-schools are small groups of children that learn at home. The parents of children in micro-schools pool their resources to hire a teacher, or instead become teachers themselves by obtaining teaching materials through homeschooling programs.

However, some families cannot afford a private teacher’s salary, even if they pool their funds with other parents. Parents who can’t or won’t send their children to public schools deserve to get their kids’ share of state instruction funds.

It’s a matter of equity. If public schools can’t safely and effectively provide education, the funds should flow to families so they can find a solution that works for them and their children. Putting schooling funds directly into the family’s hands allows for maximum flexibility when the local government school is unable to provide an option that parents feel comfortable with.

Parents know what options are best for their children, and Oregon lawmakers should allow all families, not just wealthy ones, to have the same access to those options.

Cooper Conway is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Coronavirus Shouldn’t Stop Learning

By Cooper Conway

On March 16, Governor Kate Brown directed Oregon schools to stop in-person classes to slow the spread of COVID-19. Facing an uncertain future for “brick and mortar” schooling, 300 Oregon students completed the process to transfer to one of Oregon’s 14 online charter schools.

Eleven days after the shutdown of in-person schools, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) prevented additional student transfers to online charter schools. Jeff Kropf, the founder of Oregon Connections Academy, estimated that around 1,600 students were unable to move to his school because of ODE’s decision to freeze further transfers.

ODE’s decision curtailed thousands of students from reaching their full learning potential this past semester. However, policymakers have a rare chance to right these wrongs going forward.

Nine states have reported spikes in COVID-19 this past month, and a similar situation may occur this coming fall. Given the uncertainties about the safety and feasibility of reopening all Oregon schools, lawmakers should allow parents to choose what kind of school in which to enroll their children. The resulting increase in competition among charter, private, and public schools will encourage all education providers to adapt to the current circumstances to provide the best education possible for students.

In addition to increasing the educational opportunities that will be available for students, rolling back unnecessary regulation of charter schools will put more power over education choices into the hands of parents, where it belongs.

Cooper Conway is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Supreme Court Upholds Parents’ Right to Choose Religious Schools

By Kathryn Hickok

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 30 in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that states’ school choice laws may not discriminate against religiously affiliated schools.

Montana’s tax credit scholarship program, passed in 2015, enabled families to send their children to the private schools of their choice. The program was ruled unconstitutional by the Montana Supreme Court because some participating students wanted to apply their scholarships to religious schools, which the Department of Revenue argued violated the state’s Blaine Amendment. The Institute for Justice (IJ) appealed this decision on behalf of parents, arguing that the Court’s decision violated the Free Exercise, Equal Protection, and Establishment Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court decided in favor of the Montana parents, stating that “[a] State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

Reacting to the Court’s ruling, IJ’s president and general counsel Scott Bullock commented:

The Montana high court claimed, as [educational] choice opponents have for decades, that allowing parents like Kendra [Espinoza] to [use a tax credit scholarship at a religious school] violated the state constitution’s Blaine Amendment—which forbids state funding of so-called sectarian institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court made clear in its ruling today that it was wrong. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “Drawing on ‘enduring American tradition,’” the Court has long recognized the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children.

Back in 1926, another private school controversy made it all the way to the Supreme Court. With the goal of preventing students from choosing a Catholic education, the state of Oregon had outlawed all private schools. In the landmark ruling Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court wrote that “[t]he fundamental theory of liberty…excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.”

Parents have a right to direct the education of their children—they did in 1926 and they still do today. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Espinoza v. Montana upholds parental choice in education by ensuring that state-run school choice programs don’t discriminate on the basis of religion.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also Director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides privately funded scholarships to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend the tuition-based schools of their choice.

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To Meet Kids’ Urgent Education Needs, Oregon Should Give Parents a “Money-Back Guarantee” Through School Choice

By Kathryn Hickok

School choice has been increasing in popularity with parents for years. Education policies that give parents more options for their kids have been trending positively across most demographics.

Now, a late-April poll conducted by Heart + Mind Strategies reports that a majority of parents are considering changing their children’s future school enrollment. Parents were asked: “Has the impact of coronavirus on your child’s education caused you to consider changing your child’s future schooling?” Among public school parents, 14% said they are considering homeschooling, 20% said they are considering a private school, and 26% said they are considering a different public school.

Education Savings Account programs are an education funding solution that addresses the needs of parents today. ESAs give parents a kind of “money-back guarantee” if they want to opt out of their zoned public schools and choose other options. ESA programs currently operating in five states deposit a portion of the state funding that would be spent for a student in a public school into an account associated with the child’s family. Families can use those funds to pay for tuition or other education expenses.

ESA legislation can be designed to be fiscally neutral, or even net-positive, for school districts while giving parents several thousand dollars per child to spend on the school options of their choice.

COVID-19 will change the way students attend school. Out of this situation can come a chance to improve kids’ options through flexible, personalized delivery of education.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also Director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which has provided private scholarships worth more than $3.3 million to lower-income Oregon children to help them attend tuition-based elementary schools since 1999.

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Supreme Court Espinoza Case Debates Parents’ Freedom to Choose Religious Schools

By Miranda Bonifield

When Kendra Espinoza’s husband suddenly left their small family, her two daughters’ lives were thrown into chaos. Separation is never easy on kids. But on top of all the normal anxieties of the situation, Naomi and Sarah went from homeschooling with a stay-at-home mom to enrollment in the local public school while their mom worked. While this might be a smooth transition for some kids, Naomi was bullied and Sarah struggled in her classes.

Kendra knew it wasn’t the right option for them. So, the Montana mother took a second job and pursued every financial avenue she could to send them to a Christian private school. There, her daughters flourished in an environment where Kendra felt they were learning good values.

Tuition became more burdensome when in 2017 Montana ended the tax credit scholarship that helped stabilize Naomi and Sarah’s lives. The small program had allowed Montana taxpayers to deduct up to $150 from their taxes when they voluntarily donated to scholarship organizations that helped kids like the Espinozas.

Montana’s tax credit scholarships could be used at any school, whether secular or religious, until the Montana Department of Revenue chose to interpret the state’s prohibition against aid to religious organizations to include participation in this program. Though a trial court found in favor of families’ free exercise, the Montana Supreme Court struck down the entire scholarship tax credit to avoid either benefiting or discriminating against religious schools. On January 22, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue.

Ending a scholarship program which helped families across the state solely to prevent religious schools from benefiting is arguably a violation of the free exercise and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Previous Supreme Court cases like Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017) established that a church’s status as a religious organization may not be used to deny it benefits from an otherwise secular aid program.

Montana has argued, tenuously, that the precedent set in Locke v. Davey allows a state educational funding program to refuse funding explicitly religious options such as pastoral degrees. But even the scholarship program in Locke included religious schools and religious classes, drawing the line only at explicitly religious purposes.

Montana’s tax credit scholarship, which originally assisted school-aged children to attend any participating private school, could have legally and Constitutionally continued to help Kendra Espinoza and her kids without providing undue support to religious organizations. In fact, out of 29 states with a total of 62 school choice programs, Montana’s is the only program which chose to explicitly remove support for religious schools on the basis of their religion.

While school choice programs may allow funding to be directed to a variety of schools, the real beneficiaries are the families who can choose schools which help their unique children. The real beneficiaries are kids like Naomi and Sarah. Espinoza v. Montana is less a question about public funding for private schools and more an issue of equal access to education for American families. While striking down Montana’s tax credit scholarship program removed options for all children, it disproportionately impacted the children of low-income families for whom private school tuition is at best a major sacrifice and at worst an impossibility.

For moms like Kendra, school choice isn’t a distant political ideal. It’s an immediate practical reality which means the difference between watching your child struggle through a one-size-fits-all system and choosing a school that can nurture your child’s growth. This month’s arguments in Espinoza v. Montana should become an important precedent for defending a family’s right to choose an education consistent with their values, bringing a fairer understanding of what it means to provide equal access to education.

A favorable ruling in Espinoza v. Montana could help empower families who otherwise would be unable to attend private schools—a boon both to public schools which would benefit from increased competition and to students who could thrive with the education that best fits them.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also the Program Assistant for the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which helps lower-income Oregon children attend private and parochial elementary schools through partial-tuition scholarships.

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Charter Schools Create Diverse Choices for Students with Different Needs

By Miranda Bonifield

Parents know the educational needs of their children are as diverse as they are. As Lance Izumi notes in his new book Choosing Diversity, families use the flexibility of charter schools to cater to their students’ unique needs. Some choose classical schools rooted in the Socratic method, while others seek out technical schools which cater to students’ individual learning styles. And for some kids experiencing homelessness, charter schools can provide a point of stability and hope.

Transient housing may have a lifelong impact on educational outcomes for the estimated 22,000 students in Oregon who statistically fall behind in grades and graduation rates. When a student’s address is constantly shifting, it is difficult to feel secure enough to keep learning.

Enter charter schools like Life Learning Academy in San Francisco. Instead of falling through the cracks as they might in a traditional public school, at-risk students are given the specialized attention and consistency they need. Students come to Life Learning Academy with low grade point averages and low self-confidence. They leave not only prepared for college, but with the skills they need to succeed as independent adults. As one student put it, “a little bit of care and positivity can change your life.”

School choice helps students from all backgrounds to find successful educational paths to a healthy and bright future.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Testimony of Kathryn Hickok Before the Senate Education Committee Regarding SB 668 Education Savings Accounts

June 5, 2019

Chair Wagner and Members of the Committee, my name is Kathryn Hickok. I’m Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, a nonpartisan policy research organization.

Education Savings Accounts empower parents to customize their children’s education in the ways that are best for them as individual students. ESAs are a “ticket to the future”—today—for every child to find the right fit, to find his or her spark for learning, and to succeed in school and in life. More choices mean more opportunities.

ESAs are government-authorized savings accounts with restricted but multiple uses. ESA programs deposit a percentage of the per-student state education funding allocation into an account, from which the family pays for approved education expenses.

Unused funds may be “rolled over” for subsequent years, including post-secondary education or training within the state of Oregon.

Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee are operating ESA programs today. Senate Bill 668 would create an Education Savings Account program here in Oregon.

Unlike voucher programs, ESAs give parents the flexibility to spend education funds on more than just private school tuition. Depending on the specifics of legislation, other approved uses can include textbooks, AP and online classes, tutoring, testing, dual-enrollment courses, homeschool expenses, and education-related fees.

Some ESA programs operate like controlled-use debit cards, which ensure parents pay only for legitimate education expenses.

Critics sometimes express concern that ESAs would remove funding from the public school system; that parents wouldn’t be held accountable; that non-public schools are not held to the same regulatory standards as public schools; or that ESAs mean “public dollars would be used for private purposes.”

Proponents of ESA programs take these concerns seriously. Senate Bill 668 was designed to address them.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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SB 668 Testimony Before the Senate Education Committee on Education Savings Accounts Kathryn Hickok 6-5-19

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Florida Legislature Gives 18,000 More Children the Chance for a Great Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This week, the Florida legislature passed a bill that would create a scholarship program for lower-income families called the Family Empowerment Scholarship. The Family Empowerment Scholarship will provide lower-income children with scholarships equal to 95% of the state portion of funding to school districts. The Family Empowerment Scholarship is expected to be signed into law soon by Governor Ron DeSantis.

The Family Empowerment Scholarship will complement Florida’s other parental choice programs, the McKay Scholarship for children with special needs and Step Up for Students for children from low-income families. According to the American Federation for Children, which promotes parental choice in K-12 education, the parents of more than 170,000 Florida children wanted to apply for 100,000 scholarships available through Step Up for Students for the current school year. By authorizing 18,000 new scholarships in its first year, with a subsequent annual growth rate of 7,000 per year, the new Florida law will increase the education options available to low-income Florida parents.

Oregon should take a serious look at the diversity of parental choice options low-income families now have in states like Florida and across the country. It’s time for Oregon to expand the role of parents choosing―and schools delivering―better education through school choice, because every child deserves a chance for a successful school experience and a better future today.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Annual School Choice Week Celebrates K-12 Education Options

By Kathryn Hickok

Every January, National School Choice Week shines a spotlight on effective education options for all children. A nonpartisan and nonpolitical celebration of educational choice, the Week raises awareness of the different K-12 options available to families, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online academies, and homeschooling. This year’s celebration will be January 20-26, 2019.

Here in Oregon, Cascade Policy Institute will host the Options in Education Fest 2019: Exploring Your Child’s Education Opportunities, at the Salem Convention Center, Saturday, January 19, 2019. Parents and children can learn more about their options, including programs offered and application processes at various schools. This knowledge will provide parents with the power to make informed choices for their children.

Children have different talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The options available to meet students’ learning needs are more diverse today than ever. For more information and to attend the Options in Education Fest, visit schoolchoicefororegon.com.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Lessons in Education from Gandalf the Grey

By Miranda Bonifield

Cascade Policy Institute has supported parental choice in K-12 education since 1991. In fact, it’s the issue that convinced founder Steve Buckstein of the need for a free-market think tank in Oregon. But would you have imagined that Gandalf, fictional hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, would be a voice for educational choice as well?

Yes, you read that right: Gandalf the Grey (delighter of hobbits, purveyor of fireworks, and instigator of disruptive adventures) would support school choice—giving parents the power to choose the educational setting that works best for their children. It’s all right if you need some tea to process that. I’m enjoying my second breakfast as I write this.

If you think Gandalf would never have any concern about education, consider the man who created the beloved character.

J.R.R. Tolkien was a celebrated philologist who studied and taught at Oxford. As a child, most of his initial education in languages, literature, botany, music, and art came from his widowed mother, whose creativity and passion for knowledge were passed on to her children. When her already meager allowance from her husband’s relatives was cut off upon her conversion to Catholicism, the Tolkien family moved to even harder circumstances and benefited from a local parish school. After his mother died, the young author persevered as a student.

Tolkien would later say, “True education is a kind of never-ending story—a matter of continual beginnings, of habitual fresh starts, of persistent newness.”

His character Gandalf regularly placed his faith in the character of everyday people, entrusting the most important task of Tolkien’s saga—the care and destruction of the One Ring—to an ordinary halfling. “Soft as butter as they can be,” the wizard said, “and yet sometimes as tough as old tree-roots.” Even comfortable, curmudgeonly Bilbo Baggins demonstrated how right he was—exchanging riddles to save his life from Gollum, rescuing his dwarven companions from giant spiders, and then risking the anger of the same friends to broker peace between gathering armies.

With such demonstrations of Bilbo’s merit, I think it’s safe to say Gandalf would trust ordinary people’s desire and ability to obtain a good education for their children.

Wisdom (and our favorite wizard) recognizes that life isn’t one-size-fits-all. One doesn’t reason with the evil possessing the king of Rohan—drive it out by whatever means necessary. One doesn’t send an impetuous, proud prince of Gondor into Mordor with a ring of unfathomable power. Instead, send an ordinary person whose heart is in the right place.

Likewise, parents don’t want to send their uniquely gifted child, who may have special needs, to a school that isn’t a good fit. Every parent wants to give their child the best education possible.

The most effective way to accomplish that is not by trying to force public schools to cover every eventuality and trapping students in schools that don’t meet their needs. Rather, we should return the power to parents by putting education funding in their hands to utilize resources that are already available for their children.

Last year, researchers at EdChoice combed through the highest-quality studies of school choice programs around the country. Did you know that 31 of the 33 studies on the competitive effects of school choice demonstrate a positive impact on public school test scores? Each of the three studies on the competitive effects of school choice programs found that participants in school choice programs graduate at a higher rate than their peers. School choice typically has a positive effect on racial and ethnic integration. Perhaps most importantly, parents who are able to take advantage of school choice are more satisfied with the quality of education their children receive and feel their children are safer at school.

It’s high time we brought some newness to Oregon’s education system. With good counsel from the wisest advisor of the Shire, I’m sure the excellent and commendable hobbits here in Oregon will agree: Each one of us should be a voice for school choice.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization. She is also the Program Assistant for the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon, a Cascade program that provides K-8 scholarships to low-income Oregon children.

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School Choice Improves Student Mental Health

By Miranda Bonifield

If you’ve done your homework on school choice, you know it’s been linked with improved student safety, improved quality of public schools, and academic performance. But another compelling virtue of school choice, recently published by Dr. Corey DeAngelis and Professor Angela Dills, is its association with improved mental health and decreased rates of suicide. Even when controlling for students’ family backgrounds, the paper continued to find a strong association between school choice and decreased rates of suicide.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When families are empowered to choose the best fit for their children, they are likely to favor schools with safe and nurturing environments that suit their child’s unique needs. The best answer to Oregon’s educational problems isn’t a longer school year or more access to preschool, even if those are potentially good things for some families. The answer is to expand Oregonian families’ choices through Education Savings Accounts, which would reserve a portion of state education funding for students’ families—making sure that money follows the educational needs of individual children, not the blanket dictates of administrators.

Every child should have the chance to receive a quality education. Oregon should make a change that’s good for our kids’ mental health and their long-term success.

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Survey Shows Florida Scholarship Parents Are Overwhelmingly Satisfied with Their Children’s Schools

By Kathryn Hickok

Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program currently helps more than a hundred thousand of the state’s most disadvantaged students to get a better education through privately funded scholarships, making it the largest private school choice program in America. The program has been funded by voluntary corporate donations to nonprofit scholarship organizations. In return for these donations, companies receive dollar-for-dollar tax credits against their state income tax.

Last week, EdChoice released the largest-ever survey of the parents of Florida’s tax credit scholarship students, revealing these families’ educational priorities and experiences.

Analyzing the responses of more than fourteen thousand parents, EdChoice concluded:

  • “The vast majority of Florida scholarship parents expressed satisfaction with the tax-credit scholarship program.”
  • “Florida parents chose their children’s private schools because those schools offer what their public schools can’t/don’t.”
  • “Among respondents whose children were previously enrolled in a public district or charter school before using a scholarship to enroll in a private school, most parents reported engaging in a variety of education-related activities more often than before switching schools….”

Children have different talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The landscape of educational options to meet students’ learning needs is more diverse today than ever. For more information about school choice in Oregon, visit schoolchoicefororegon.com.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

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Watch “School Choice Changes Lives!” Online Now

By Steve Buckstein

On September 25, Cascade Policy Institute and its School Choice for Oregon project hosted a live audience event in downtown Portland, “School Choice Changes Lives!”

Designed to attract an online audience and social media participation, the event aired simultaneously on Facebook.

National school choice experts Dr. Matthew Ladner (Charles Koch Institute) and Tim Keller (Institute for Justice) were the featured guests for this fast-moving, question-and-answer panel discussion on school choice.

If you missed the live event online, you can watch it now to learn how school choice can benefit all Oregon children. Whether you’re a parent, grandparent, educator, and/or taxpayer, you won’t want to miss this opportunity to learn from experts how School Choice Changes Lives!

You can watch the archived video at Facebook.com/SchoolChoiceforOregon. If you’re not on Facebook, simply go to SchoolChoiceforOregon.com; click on the Social button and watch School Choice Changes Lives on YouTube. There is no login required to watch on YouTube.

If you think Oregon’s school children are not getting all the opportunities to learn that they deserve, you won’t want to miss this event. So go to Facebook or YouTube, and learn how School Choice Changes Lives and how you can get involved to help make school choice a reality in Oregon.

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Oregon Parents Need More Options for Children with Learning Challenges

By Miranda Bonifield

For students born with learning disorders like dyslexia, learning to read without a specialized program is an incredibly difficult task. Instead of being a satisfying challenge, it becomes a demoralizing chore.

Consider the experience of Tara Mixon, who quit her job to homeschool her dyslexic first grader.  His self-confidence had plummeted when he couldn’t learn to read alongside his Kindergarten class. Transitioning to a single income meant she couldn’t afford specialized tutoring, which often costs more than $50 per hour. Tara’s hard work means her son can enroll in fourth grade this year, but she is far from confident in the public schools’ ability to address his needs. Like many parents of dyslexic students, Tara fears her son will fall behind his peers again and lose the confidence he has built over the last two years.

New legislation recently passed in Oregon makes an admirable effort at early identification of reading disorders, but experience has shown parents and children alike that good intentions don’t guarantee results.

Instead of trying to shoehorn students with unique needs into a single system, Oregon should empower families with school choice. Implementing a system like Education Savings Accounts would allow parents like Tara to enroll their students in specialized programs or pay for tutoring—turning reading from an insurmountable obstacle back into the joy it should be.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Can School Choice Change Lives?

By Steve Buckstein

Can School Choice Change Lives? Join Cascade Policy Institute and SchoolChoiceforOregon.com the evening of Tuesday, September 25th for a Live Stream Facebook event featuring two prominent national School Choice experts.

Find out how and why School Choice is indeed changing lives around the country, and how Oregon school children can benefit from much more school choice than they have today.

Each student has individual challenges and learning styles, and many factors can cause them to fall behind. Join this discussion to learn how School Choice can help.

Are you a parent? Are you an Oregon taxpayer? You won’t want to miss this fast-moving Q&A discussion with local and national school reform experts, in front of a live studio audience in Portland.

We invite you to submit questions in advance or during the Live Stream at Facebook.com/SchoolChoiceforOregon.

To be involved, go to SchoolChoiceforOregon.com/Events and enter your email address. You’ll be notified by email before the event goes live on Facebook at 6 pm on September 25th.

If you’ve ever wondered why Oregon’s public education system is so expensive, yet produces such poor results for so many children, you won’t want to miss this important event. Again, go to SchoolChoiceforOregon.com/Events and enter your email address.

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

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The Smartest Choice Is School Choice

By Miranda Bonifield

What do 29 states and nations from Australia to the Netherlands have in common? School choice. In Belgium, school choice is enshrined as a constitutional right. Pakistan utilizes a voucher program. The result is higher-quality education for kids of all backgrounds. It’s time for Oregon to recognize these benefits and embrace school choice.

Not only are participants in school choice programs more likely to graduate and enroll in college, but 31 of 33 available studies have demonstrated that the resulting interschool competition positively impacts public schools.

It’s the best policy for low-income communities: As the Brookings Institute’s John White noted in 2016, school choice gives low-income kids the chance to take advantage of options like private schools or tutoring that otherwise would be out of reach.

School choice doesn’t favor any one religion or group, since well-structured programs like Education Savings Accounts allow parents themselves to choose the educational resources that meet their own children’s needs. And as a cherry on top, all but three of the 40 available fiscal analyses found that school choice resulted in savings of taxpayer dollars.

However you spin it, the smart choice is school choice.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Stop Waiting for Superman—Be a Voice for Choice Instead

By Miranda Bonifield

Are we waiting for Superman? In 2010, a documentary by that name chronicled the struggles of five kids trying to get a quality education in the American public school system. Despite the $634 billion dollars Americans funnel into public education, these kids’ choices were between enrollment in an ill-fitting public school or winning the charter school lottery. Kids’ talents aren’t determined by their ZIP codes; and their educations shouldn’t be, either. Oregonians should take up Superman’s mantle ourselves and expand students’ horizons via school choice.

Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs, would put some of the funds that the state otherwise would spend to educate a student in a public school into accounts associated with the student’s family. The family could use the funds for approved educational expenses like tuition, tutors, online courses, and other services and materials. This would empower parents and give kids the freedom to thrive in the best educational program for them. Imagine kids with disabilities having more access to some of the best programs in the state, or gifted young artists with more access to the fine arts programs outside their home school district. ESA’s help make that happen. They could even save taxpayers thousands of dollars.

This year alone, 466,000 students were served by school choice programs in 29 states. Oregon should be among them. Stop waiting for Superman—he isn’t coming. Instead, be a voice for choice.

Miranda Bonifield is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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School Choice Leads to Student Success

By Kathryn Hickok

Parents know a solid education prepares their children for life, and that path begins in grade school. But many Oregon families are trapped in public schools that don’t meet their kids’ educational needs. While families with greater means can move to neighborhoods with public schools they like, or pay twice for education by opting for a private school, lower-income families often don’t have those options.

And those families’ children are at the greatest risk of not graduating from high school. According to the National Association of Education Progress, only 33% of Oregon fourth-graders tested “proficient” in reading in 2017. Our state continues to have the third-lowest graduation rate in the country. Nearly half the children born into poverty will stay in poverty as adults. Changing those outcomes requires a solid early education leading to graduation and employment.

This spring, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program sponsored by Cascade Policy Institute is celebrating twenty years of giving low-income parents more choices in education, so their children can have a better chance. As director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon, I’ve watched how partial tuition scholarships, funded by private donors in our community, have changed the trajectories of our students’ lives, sparking their passion for learning and helping them fulfill their potential.

One of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon’s first scholarship recipients described her experience this way: “My parents…wanted my brother and me to be placed in an environment where we would be academically challenged and be able to succeed….What [the Children’s Scholarship Fund has] given me is so much more than money; you have given me opportunity, confidence, faith, and trust that life has meaning, and that I am meant to succeed no matter what obstacles come my way.”

Every child should feel that way, and with school choice they can.

In 1998, philanthropists Ted Forstmann and John Walton wanted to jumpstart a national movement that would support low-income parents wanting alternatives to faltering government schools. Pledging $100 million of their own money, Forstmann and Walton challenged local donors across the U.S. to match their gift and help them offer 40,000 low-income children the chance to attend the tuition-based schools of their parents’ choice. That challenge became the Children’s Scholarship Fund and a national network of independently operating private scholarship programs for K-8 children.

But instead of 40,000 applicants, the Children’s Scholarship Fund heard from 1.25 million low-income parents nationwide. Here in Oregon, parents of more than 6,600 children in the Portland tri-county area applied for 500 available scholarships. Forstmann and Walton found out quickly that low-income parents were desperately seeking a quality education they couldn’t find in their local public schools.

They believed that if parents had meaningful choices among educational options, children would have a better chance at success in school. Twenty years of data have proven this true. Studies of college enrollment and graduation rates of scholarship alumni have shown that, despite coming from socioeconomic backgrounds associated with lower rates of college enrollment, Children’s Scholarship Fund students enroll in college at an average rate that is similar to or higher than the general population.

In other words, education in private grade schools is closing the achievement gap for kids from less advantaged backgrounds.

Ted Forstmann was known to say, “If you save one life, you save the world,” and “if you give parents a choice, you will give their children a chance.” Thanks to Forstmann, John Walton, and private donors in Oregon and 18 other states who have supported low-income parents in their quest for a quality education, more than 166,000 children have been a given that chance through scholarships worth more than $741 million. By offering parents the opportunity to choose which school best fits their child’s needs, the Children’s Scholarship Fund puts the power of education back in the hands of parents, where it belongs.

Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She is also director of Cascade’s Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Gresham Outlook on April 24, 2018.

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Time to Decentralize Oregon’s Education Reform Efforts

By Kathryn Hickok and Steve Buckstein

Three years ago, Oregon state government killed off what should have been the last of three big education reform efforts since 1991. Each promised to solve the unsolvable: how a one-size-fits-all public K-12 school system could educate all Oregon students and launch them onto a lifelong path of educational and career success. The fatal flaw in these reform efforts was that they relied on centralizing control over education policy.

Now, the Oregon legislature is embarking on what may turn into a fourth “impossible mission” to achieve student success in our public school system. Members of the Joint Committee on Student Success will travel around the state asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They then will return to the State Capitol and recommend that every school do “what works” somewhere—most likely at a higher cost to taxpayers than they are paying today.

But rather than wait years to judge this latest reform effort a failure, why not try another path: the school choice path? School choice allows students and their families to choose where and how to get the educational opportunities that are right for them. School choice recognizes that children learn in different ways and at different paces and puts parents, not bureaucrats, in the driver’s seat of their kids’ education. That truly would be a revolutionary movement in the direction of student success.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Steve Buckstein is Cascade’s Senior Policy Analyst and Founder.

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Four Strikes and You’re Still Out: Oregon’s Ongoing Quest to Centralize Education Policy

By Steve Buckstein 

In 2015 Oregon state government killed off what should have been the last of three big education reform efforts since 1991. Each promised to solve the unsolvable: namely, figuring out how a one-size-fits-all public Kindergarten-through-high-school virtual monopoly system could educate all Oregon students and launch them onto a lifelong path of educational and career success.

First came the Education Act for the Twenty-First Century in 1991. With its Certificates of Initial and Advanced Mastery (CIM and CAM), it aimed to produce “the best educated citizens in the nation by the year 2000 and a work force equal to any in the world by the year 2010.” After it failed, the Quality Education Model arose in 1999 and is still limping along primarily to justify arguments for spending billions of additional taxpayer dollars to achieve the successes no such plan can deliver.

In 2012 Oregon made its third big reform effort. The Oregon Education Investment Board (OEIB), headed by its creator, Governor John Kitzhaber, promised to centralize education policy more than either of the two big reform efforts it followed. Kitzhaber concluded that those previous reforms simply didn’t control a broad enough swath of the education spectrum to work. Kindergarten through 12th grade simply wasn’t a grand enough vision. So, his OEIB effort sought to control everything from pre-Kindergarten through graduate school. But by 2015, “…the ease with which lawmakers…agreed to dismantle it reflects the widely shared view that the board did more wrong than right in its three-plus years of operation.…” This would have been the perfect time to adopt the “three strikes and you’re out” concept for Oregon’s education policy efforts.

The fatal flaw in all these reform efforts was that they relied on “smart” people centralizing control over educational policy and decision making. As I discussed in “Forced Participation: Public Education’s Fatal Flaw” and “The Oregon Education Investment Board: Top Down on Steroids,” centralizing control over education policy and forcing students to attend schools chosen for them by others are destined to fail because they fly in the face of one of America’s most cherished values: choice. Parents don’t appreciate politicians, bureaucrats, or experts making decisions for them about what is best for their children. Advise? Sure. Command? No way.

Today, rather than call a halt to this inevitable string of big reform failures, the Oregon legislature is embarking on what may turn into a fourth “impossible mission” to achieve student success in our public school system. Members of the Joint Committee on Student Success will spend this year traveling around the state asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They will then return to the marble halls of the State Capitol and recommend that every school be mandated to do “what works” somewhere—of course, at a higher cost to taxpayers than they are paying today.

Rather than wait years to judge this latest big reform a failure, it is time to try another path: the school choice path. Of source, school choice is in conflict with the command-and-control efforts that are central to the big reform efforts Oregon has tried since 1991.

Instead, the school choice path allows students and their families to chose where and how they get the educational opportunities that our advanced society is now capable of providing. No longer would students be required to attend schools based on their ZIP codes. No longer would the tax dollars Oregonians pay to educate students be spent only in schools built by local governments and populated by public employees.

The school choice path recognizes that different children learn in different ways. They learn at different paces, too. And, they no longer need to be assigned to one brick building for years and years, only to be moved by the system into another building when they reach a certain age or grade level.

Today, most families, even low-income families, have the tools they need to explore the many educational options available for their children. They want to pick and choose from a wide assortment of options: from traditional neighborhood schools, to public charter schools, to private schools, to online learning, to home schooling.

The school choice path is being carved out in other states much faster than it is here in Oregon. The latest and most versatile school choice programs being enacted elsewhere are Education Savings Accounts. Unlike vouchers, which only let parents pay for private school tuition, ESA funds may also be used for other approved educational expenses, such as online learning programs, private tutoring, community college costs, and other customized learning services and materials.

Also, while voucher funds all go to private school tuition or are lost to the families, funds remaining in ESA accounts each year may be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, even into college. This creates incentives for families to “shop” for the best educational experiences at the lowest cost, as well as incentives for schools and educational programs to price their services as low as possible.

On the school choice path, if a school fails students it doesn’t get more money, it gets less as students leave and take their allocated money with them to other schools. This is the path that finally will put students first.

Before Oregon’s fourth education reform strike inevitably fails and takes a further toll on students and taxpayers, let’s decide to take another path—the school choice path.

(This Commentary is an update of a 2012 Commentary, “Three Strikes and You’re Out: Replacing Top-Down Education Control with School Choice.”)

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

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Oregon Parents Deserve to Be the Voice for Kids’ Education Options

By Bobbie Jager

For the second year in a row, Oregon has reported the third-lowest graduation rate in the country. With a four-year adjusted public high school graduation rate of 74.8% (2015-16), Oregon only beats Nevada and New Mexico, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The typical response to this kind of bad news is for teachers unions and legislators to claim that taxpayers are “underfunding” public schools; and that’s why so many kids don’t make it to graduation. But Oregon already spends more on K-12 education than 33 other states. According to the National Education Association’s Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, revenue per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance is nearly $14,000, including local, state, and federal funding. That puts Oregon more than four percent above the national average in school spending.

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Bobbie Jager, Oregon’s 2012 “Mother of the Year,” is a parental choice advocate and the School Choice Outreach Coordinator for the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Portland Tribune on January 25, 2018.

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National School Choice Week Celebrates Diversity in K-12 Education

By Kathryn Hickok

National School Choice Week is the world’s largest celebration of educational options for all children. Held nationwide every January, National School Choice Week raises awareness about the K-12 education options available to children and families, while spotlighting the benefits of school choice. This year’s celebration will be January 21-27.

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Give Oregon Kids the Power of Educational Choice, Like Kids in Florida

By Kathryn Hickok

Denisha Merriweather failed third grade twice. Today, she is finishing her master’s degree, thanks to Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The key to Denisha’s success was her godmother’s ability to remove Denisha from a school that was failing her, and to send her to the school that provided her with the support she needed.

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Taxpayers Aren’t at Fault for Oregon’s Abysmal Graduation Rate

Taxpayers Aren’t at Fault for Oregon’s Abysmal Graduation Rate

By Kathryn Hickok

Willamette Week recently reported that, sadly, Oregon has the third-lowest graduation rate in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Oregon’s four-year adjusted public high school graduation rate was 74.8% in 2015-16. Only Nevada and New Mexico have lower graduation rates.

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QuickPoint! – Military Families Want Education Options for Their Kids

Military Families Want Flexible Education Options for Their Kids

By Kathryn Hickok

EdChoice recently conducted a groundbreaking survey of military-connected families seeking to understand their perspectives on K-12 education and school choice. EdChoice is a nonpartisan research organization that promotes expanded educational options for all children.

The survey found that families connected with the military highly value access to better educational environments for their children, want more freedom and flexibility in choosing their children’s schools, and overwhelmingly support school choice programs like Education Savings Accounts. Eighty percent of children in military households currently attend public schools, but only 34% of survey respondents said a public school would be their first choice. Military parents are much more likely than the national average to take “costly and inconvenient steps to secure and accommodate their children’s education.” That includes taking extra jobs, moving closer to schools, and taking out loans.

The military lifestyle presents unique challenges to families. The EdChoice report noted that “the quality of educational options available to military families can play a major role in whether a family accepts an assignment or even decides to leave military service altogether.” As a nation we should consider that providing military families with meaningful school choice programs could be a significant boost to the morale of service members by improving the well-being of their families. Making it easier for military kids to get their educational needs met is the right thing to do.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon program at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Why Protesters of Betsy DeVos Can’t Understand What She’s Talking About

Why Protesters of Betsy DeVos Can’t Understand What She’s Talking About

By Steve Buckstein

What would you do if you read an article about an Oregon public high school whose students seemed to be performing well above state averages? If you’re U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, you’d hop on a plane and come sit in on three senior classes at the school─McMinnville High School. That’s exactly what DeVos did on October 11. She also met privately with some students and friends, including Cascade Policy Institute School Choice Outreach Coordinator and 2012 Oregon Mother of the Year Bobbie Jager.

Her visit didn’t go unnoticed by those who incorrectly believe she’s out to destroy public education. Some 200 protesters, including teachers union officials, stood outside the school and let anyone who would listen know that they don’t want the school choice policies DeVos advocates anywhere near what they apparently see as the only educational institutions worthy of taxpayer support.

Betsy DeVos is a long-time advocate for letting parents choose where their children get their educations. Time and again she’s tried to make clear that she’s not against public education; she just believes that educating the public isn’t always done best in traditional government schools. Sometimes students do better in public charter schools, private schools, online schools, or even in home school.

So why can’t the protesters who showed up in McMinnville last week see what Betsy DeVos sees? Perhaps it’s because, for whatever reasons, their worldviews simply don’t include an understanding of how consumer choice and markets can work together to provide better services at lower prices than can government monopolies.

Cascade Policy Institute published a thought piece on these concepts sixteen years ago that still stands as a seminal introduction to these perplexing concerns. Called “Choice Thinking,” here’s the abstract:

A powerful, yet flawed perspective grips the public mind such that it ignores, distorts, and rejects school choice facts and arguments. Just as the Church rejected Galileo’s scientific findings, this public school ideology rejects choice supporters’ educational findings and analysis. The public simply cannot fit a market perspective into its understanding of how the world works. We will not make major strides toward school choice if we continue to believe that simply teaching the public about the benefits of market education or tinkering with choice proposals will be enough. A new market perspective can’t be simply taught. It must develop, like any living system develops, out of its more primitive pro-government form. Our challenge is to understand this transformation. We cannot change the public’s thinking if we do not understand it.

 So, there you have it. School choice supporters, by and large, don’t understand why people like the Betsy DeVos protesters can’t comprehend what we see as obvious truths.

Of course, some of the protesters may very well understand what we are talking about. They have a vested interest in keeping the status quo, so that all the billions of taxpayer dollars being spent to educate the public only flow into the government buildings where they work and teach. The fact that this status quo isn’t working for many children is the reason Betsy DeVos and countless school choice supporters advocate for letting the money follow the child to the school of their family’s choice.

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

View the PDF version here: 17-18-Why_DeVos_Protesters_Can’t_Understand_School_Choice

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Choice Thinking: Why does the public ignore, distort or reject school choice facts and arguments?

Choice Thinking: Why does the public ignore, distort or reject school choice facts and arguments?

by

Richard Meinhard, Ph.D. and
Steve Buckstein

September 10, 2001
(contact information updated in 2016)

 

Abstract

A powerful, yet flawed perspective grips the public mind such that it ignores, distorts, and rejects school choice facts and arguments. Just as the Church rejected Galileo’s scientific findings, this public school ideology rejects choice supporters’ educational findings and analysis. The public simply cannot fit a market perspective into its understanding of how the world works. We will not make major strides toward school choice if we continue to believe that simply teaching the public about the benefits of market education or tinkering with choice proposals will be enough. A new market perspective can’t be simply taught. It must develop, like any living system develops, out of its more primitive pro-government form. Our challenge is to understand this transformation. We cannot change the public’s thinking if we do not understand it.

 

The Problem

Voters in state after state continue to defeat school choice initiatives by large margins. Choice supporters respond by debating strategies such vouchers or tax credits, whether large or small steps should be attempted, how we should deal with the critics, and what kind of information and examples should be given to the public.

But what if such strategic decisions by themselves have little to do with successfully changing the public’s fundamental point of view regarding choice? What if facts and evidence alone aren’t enough for the public to accept our ideas? What if our principles of choice and competition are not only misunderstood by the public but also actively rejected as dangerous to public education?[1]

In his research Andrew Coulson found that five factors lead to excellence in a market education system: choice and responsibility for parents, freedom and competition for providers, and the profit motive.[2] These make wonderful sense to him, to us, and probably to you. But what if they don’t make sense to the public? We believe something quite fundamental, what we call the pro-government perspective, organizes the thought processes of most people and renders them incapable of understanding the facts and evidence that a coherent free market mental perspective provides. Markets simply don’t make sense to them.

The logic of market principles is compelling to us but obviously not to most other people. And it’s clear that it does not matter what type of program is proposed. Small tax credits and limited voucher programs for low-income families are tolerated by the public as ways to solve particular problems but they do not convert people to an understanding of a market-based system.

Americans enjoy one of the freest and most bountiful market systems in the world yet few can explain how it works. An understanding isn’t necessary to reap its benefits. But markets promise nothing except opportunities and choices, while government can promise much.

With little understanding of markets and government monopolies, government promises and market fears can be enough reason for the public to reject market proposals. Neither critics nor choice supporters actually change the public’s underlying perspective on free markets and government. The critic’s rhetoric simply triggers already felt sympathies and a comfort with the government school system. The burden of changing public opinion rests with choice supporters. As a result, critics find it easy to defeat choice initiatives simply by playing on public fears and misunderstanding.

The real problem facing choice advocates has more to do with the public’s lack of understanding of governments and markets than it does with how to package choice proposals or what information to provide. We don’t yet fully understand the nature and depth of this problem. Support for choice clearly depends upon changing an underlying pro-government perspective that organizes the public’s thinking. We need to understand this pro-government perspective so we can find ways to transform it into a market perspective.

 

The Public’s Pro-Government Perspective

Choice supporters must admit a hard truth ¾ the public doesn’t yet believe in vouchers or tax credits let alone separation of school and state. We must also admit that we don’t understand much about the pro-government perspective, much less how to change it. We don’t know what controls and protects pro-government thinking, what it is about the logic of pro-government thinking that makes market principles incomprehensible.

More importantly, we don’t understand how and why some individuals change their pro-government perspective to adopt a market perspective. Did you always believe in market education, or did you begin with some pro-government notions and then change your views over time? If you think it was simply exposure to new facts, programs, and examples, stop and ask yourself about your underlying values. Did something fundamental change regarding your perspective, or did you always understand the logic and power of markets?

Pro-government beliefs form themselves into a self-protective whole; a perspective that is resistant to change in spite of facts or explanations about markets. The pro-government perspective, like any perspective, shapes what people see, think about, decide, value, and advocate about public policy. Here are some recent examples.

A newspaper article reported on the congressional debate over reforming federal education policy. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle asserted, “We cannot have reform without resources.” A letter to the editor about energy deregulation asserted: “So who could ever suggest it should be priced by an open market just like anything else?” Another letter advocating taxing the wealthy to support affordable housing said, “Opposition to this bill has nothing to do with its effectiveness. The true reason for opposition is simple greed.”

The pro-government perspective controls the thought of these people, the facts they observe, and the assumptions that they make — if there is a problem, government should correct it; social problems exist for lack of money for government remediation; some goods and services are privileged and can’t be provided through the market; and so on.

On the other side of the debate, a free market perspective carries different assumptions—free markets create opportunity for everyone, the individual is fundamentally responsible for self, free markets create a diversity of goods and services, market exchanges produce increasing efficiencies, and so on. The two perspectives talk different languages, use different code words, see different facts, reason differently, hold different values, and work for different programs. We all recognize these two perspectives. They form one of the most fundamental divisions between people in our society today.

Those of us trying to change the pro-government, anti-market perspective need to understand this system of thought just as physicians understand various systems of the body, scientists understand physical and biologic systems, and mathematicians understand math systems. The understanding of systems allows a scientist to explain them and how they arise, and it allows practitioners to change them. Yet surprisingly, there is very little good literature that describes and explains how the pro-government perspective operates or arises in people’s thinking.

The pro-government perspective is the problem because it is so compelling that it grips and holds much of the public’s thinking. Unless we discover why this is so and how this perspective evolves into pro-market thinking, the pro-government public will continue to reject our positions, distort our facts, and trounce our initiatives.

 

Perspectives at Work

Let’s look at three examples of how perspectives grip and control thought. The first comes from history; the second from our current educational research; and the third from the perspective many school choice supporters have but many opponents lack.

1. The Aristotelian Perspective

Aristotle’s science of falling bodies persisted for 2,000 years, even though scholars contested it with facts some 400 years before Newtonian science finally replaced it. Even the classic experiment of dropping different weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa was conducted much earlier but ignored and then misattributed to Galileo. While the experimental facts showed that bodies of different weights fell at the same velocities, the Aristotelian scientific perspective was so powerful that these findings were ignored, distorted or rejected as the old perspective protected itself from change. This denial of fact and logic by Aristotelian mechanics forms a famous chapter from the history of science. It is only one of many demonstrations of the gripping power a scientific perspective, even a faulty one, can hold over thought.

2. The Child’s Perspective of weight

Even for individual concepts, we can see a gripping power at work that shapes the facts observed and the reasoning used. In experiments famous to educators, psychologists showed how students under the age of seven thought the weight of a clay ball changed when it is rolled out.[3] Young students’ ‘perspective’ of weight convinced them that because the clay was now longer, it must weigh more.

When the researchers continued to roll the clay out, astonishingly some of these same youngsters suddenly changed their minds and asserted the weight was now less. When asked why, they said because it is now thin. Teaching, demonstrations, weighing the objects, nothing worked to change their mind. They knew as a fact that they observed that the two objects were a little bit different in weight.

Yet months later, they reasoned and saw things differently. Now they knew as a matter of logical necessity that the two clay shapes weighed the same regardless of changes in length and thickness. The two balls had to be the same because nothing was added or taken away. The students’ perspective at first distorted and misperceived facts, but then the development of a more advanced perspective allowed the students to use a different logic and to see different facts in the same experiment.

3. The Perspective of Profit

Conduct this inquiry. Ask the typical adult if the profit motive has any place in education. You’re likely to get a resounding, “No!” Then try any manner of facts or examples of for-profit companies providing quality education and see if you have persuaded the person. The pro-government perspective will not let the adult understand that both sides benefit in an economic exchange. Just as young children can’t observe that the weight hasn’t changed in a flattened ball of clay, many adults can’t comprehend that both buyer and seller gain value when they enter into a voluntary exchange.

But the logic of the pro-market perspective makes an adult see that a buyer values the good or service received more than the money spent, and that the seller values the money received more than the good or service delivered. The logic of market principles compels us to make these observations, but for those with a pro-government perspective, it makes no sense.

In this example profit is what psychologists call a centration. Just as the child centers only on the clay’s length to perceive a change in its weight, adults may center on the producer’s profit to perceive a loss for the consumer. Centrated thought lacks a larger system of reasoning that groups several factors together in order to organize its mental operations. As a result, thought is centered on isolated elements without the necessary relationships among the elements. The relationship of a two-way mutually beneficial exchange is but one of several market and system concepts that seem to be missing from the thinking of many. School choice supporters need to understand both why this is the case and how these concepts develop in people.

 

When a Perspective is Important

As we said, people can use and benefit from markets without understanding them. However, compare the reform of public utilities and government franchised industries with reform of public schools. No basic change in the public’s understanding of system arrangements was required for the deregulation of telecommunications, airlines, trucking, energy, etc. The basic structural relationship between consumer and provider within those markets remained constant under deregulation—consumers still paid the provider for their services. From the public’s point of view, consumers were simply given more choices, basically a good idea. The providers were already economically tied to their customers, and deregulation did not upset the thinking of the general public. No change in perspective was necessary.

School reform, however requires changing the basic consumer/provider relationship. In our system of public education, consumers don’t pay for services received, the public does. Families are not really customers. Society purchases educational services on behalf of families using a system of democratically run government schools.

For the public to accept market principles in education it must understand and accept a new consumer/producer relationship, a huge change given the public’s low level of market understanding. The public must abandon its rather thoughtless belief that education is a public good, an individual entitlement, and that it is the public’s responsibility to provide education to all children for the common good of society. Within the public’s traditional way of thinking (or lack of thinking) about services, market reforms have no place. The pro-government perspective is the public school ideology at work.

Market driven reforms make sense only within the market perspective. Voters realize that vouchers, for example, are not a mere improvement within the box but a fundamental change in the box itself, the very structure of a basic institution. The public seems to sense that vouchers are a basic change and that makes them uneasy; it seems too large, too risky, and possibly hurtful. Advocates underestimate the conceptual change in the public’s perspective that real reforms require.

Most previous education reform efforts stay comfortably within the government system box. Take for example the nationally recognized 1983 report on the state of American education, A Nation at Risk.[4] Neither its findings nor the recommendations addressed in any way the failures of central planning, monopolies, government as a method of service delivery, third party funding, lack of consumer voice or choice, or any other system aspects of government versus market systems of delivery. The report took the system itself for granted and only attempted improvements in the performance properties of the system—content, standards, teaching, leadership, fiscal support, etc.

However, school choice is not another program improvement. It’s a systemic change, and it requires a huge change in the perspective that takes a government delivery system for granted.

 

The Think Tank Role

Choice advocates can continue to hammer away with think tank papers and media campaigns, oblivious to the nature of the pro-government perspective, or we can turn to research and development in an attempt to first understand the perspective and then to change it. This R&D is a natural function of think tanks. The very heart of the free-market think tank mission — to work toward a free society — brings with it two tasks. First, think tanks must be expert in markets and government systems. Second, as society’s teachers, think tanks must also be expert in understanding and changing the public’s thinking and misconceptions. These tasks form two quite different challenges.

As teachers we must not ignore the learner’s current level of understanding and ability to grasp complex concepts. We cannot teach algebra to young children who have yet to understand the whole number system. Likewise, market teachers must understand how market understanding develops out of elementary concepts of producers and consumers to the more advanced explanations of self-regulating, self-elaborating systems of exchange.

As teachers of school choice, our job is not simply a matter of presenting new facts or the history of government schooling. It is the public’s pro-government perspective itself that stands in the way of understanding the facts and explanations of how markets would work in education. The public is rejecting our advanced concepts because the pro-government perspective is compelling; it grips thinking and shapes what is seen as fact; it shapes the values and organizes the policy choices in educational systems. The public makes the wrong choices, from our point of view, because it cannot fit market understanding into its pro-government perspective of how the world works.

 

What Should We Settle For?

We don’t yet understand how to change the current pro-government perspective to a free market perspective. But we have clues, we have seen it happen in individuals, and we know how to study the problem and work toward a solution. If fact, there will likely be more than one optimal solution. And we can all contribute something to the effort.

Without a shift in the public’s perspective, we may have to settle for the limited successes that Moe’s recent work suggests.[5] Yet years ago Chubb and Moe told us that the intellectual debate about school choice was over. We won. But for the public, the policy debate is far from over.

When we understand how the public’s perception of government and markets develops, we will be in a far better position to win the policy debates. Then no teacher union money or old political rhetoric will stop the evolution to a market education system.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Terry Moe found that information didn’t make much difference in people’s evaluation of vouchers. On p.228 of his new book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 2001), he says, “As a result, the impact of information on support for vouchers may be positive, or it may be negative, depending on how these other variables come into play.” What he is saying is that there is an underlying “structure of thinking” (pp. 227,234, 253), a “genuine substance” (pp. 350, 358), “surprisingly effective at linking these things together” (p. 244),

[2] Andrew Coulson, Market Education: the Unknown History (New Brunswick: Social Philosophy and Policy Center and Transaction Publishers, 1999) pp. 293-306.

[3] Jean Piaget and Bärbel Inhelder, Child’s Construction of Quantities, trans. Arnold J. Pomerans (New York: Basic Books, 1974) p. 22-46. This experiment is one of a series. These were not intended to simply describe these amusing misconceptions of students in their early stages of development, but to uncover the cognitive systems that organize and produce them.

[4] A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform was guided by the 18-member national Commission on Excellence chaired by David Gardner, President of the University of Utah. The Commission, appointed by Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, released its report in April of 1983 after 18 months of work. Its report was based on commissioned papers and testimony from professional groups, parents, public officials, and scholars.

[5] Moe (Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public) uses a variable he terms “the public school ideology” to measure the effect of this perspective on people’s positions and views of vouchers.

 

Cascade Policy Institute
4850 SW Scholls Ferry Road, Suite 103
Portland, Oregon 97224
(503) 242-0900
info@cascadepolicy.orgcascadepolicy.org

 

Richard Meinhard, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who specializes in the development of cognitive, instructional, and organizational systems. He is a Cascade Policy Institute Academic Advisor.

Steve Buckstein is a founder Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market think tank. In 2001 he was President and in 2016 he is Senior Policy Analyst. He can be contacted at steven@cascadepolicy.org.

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