Month: January 2013

School Choice Respects Parents, Promotes Kids’ Best Interests

Sometimes you miss the trees for the forest. Education reform debates tend to focus on how to get the maximum number of children minimally educated. But the focus of real-life parents is getting at least a minimum number of children (their own) maximally educated. These two goals shouldn’t be at odds. In fact, the second can drive the first―if more parents were empowered to make meaningful choices for their children’s education.

A Portland-area mothers club recently advertised a public forum for local parents: “…[A]re you…trying to find the right school? Attend the…Preschool Forum to find out what teaching philosophy, curriculum, and school is best for you and your child. Representatives from over 35 local schools will be on site to provide a brief overview of teaching styles [and] programs, and to answer questions.”

This advertisement is an example of the mindset of parents with the means to shop around for the educational environment that provides what they value. Families of greater financial means already have “school choice.” They might move to a district or neighborhood with a public school they like, or they might pay full tuition at a private or parochial school. However, those options are commonly out of the reach of lower-income families.

When Cascade Policy Institute started a privately funded scholarship program, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, we learned “hands-on” that lower-income parents share the same interest in their children’s education that middle- and upper-class parents do, and they are motivated to make the same kinds of choices on their behalf. For these parents, the stakes are high. A solid education is crucial for a successful adulthood and upward mobility, and that path begins in grade school. Like parents of greater means, lower-income parents also aspire to choose the “teaching philosophy, curriculum, and school” that is best for their child. But they usually find their children trapped in public schools that, for many reasons, do not meet their kids’ needs or do not meet standards that are important to their families.

In 1999, the national Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) offered dollar-for-dollar matching grants to independent local partner programs that would provide partial tuition assistance to low-income grade school children to attend the schools of their choice. Cascade Policy Institute was among the nonprofits which took up this unprecedented challenge, raising $1 million in local funds to start a $2 million local program, the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland. Since then, CSF and its partners have invested $483 million in private funding to help more than 130,000 children nationwide.

While they don’t have much discretionary income (the average CSF-Portland family income is $35,500), CSF families always must pay part of their tuition themselves (Portland parents pay $1,680 on average). This ensures that the scholarship remains a “hand up,” rather than a handout. Because they have “skin in the game,” CSF parents are motivated to choose schools carefully and to encourage their children to make the most of their opportunities. CSF parents are responsible for transportation and other logistics involved with school attendance, just like all private school parents. Despite the challenges involved, these families make it happen.

The private schools CSF students attend typically spend one-third to one-half what neighboring public schools spend per student (the average tuition for CSF-Portland students is $3,700 this year), with better results in terms of graduation rates and college attendance. However, the point of the CSF program is not to prove that private schools are better than public schools. Rather, CSF believes that parents are the primary educators of their children and have their interests at heart. When empowered with a modest amount of financial help (the average Portland scholarship award is $1,700), parents will invest their own money, time, effort, and discipline to obtain the kind of education they want for their kids.

CSF partner programs respect the decision-making processes of families and support parents in directing their children’s education. This very human, family-centered element is what sets parent-focused education reform efforts apart from other ways of addressing the failures of today’s public education system. No one can design a school system that meets every child’s needs. No statistical data analysis or bureaucratic goal setting can ensure that any particular child makes it to high school graduation, succeeds in college, or excels in a career. No school can be all things to all people―nor should it. But most parents, including low-income ones, are keenly aware of their own children’s needs, aptitudes, strengths, weaknesses, and interests.

“CSF has meant so much to our family,” wrote a Portland mother named Cynthia. “…[W]e often talk about what a blessing it has been for the kids to have attended private school….It was the foundation for their future. It formed their beliefs, goals, morals….It has meant so much more than I can actually express. Following the death of my husband when the kids were five, three, and eight months old, it is the reason they were able to attend private school.”

Top-down education reform focuses on what appears not to be working for large numbers of people—but keeps those people in the system while the problems are being “fixed.” School choice focuses on what is working across all kinds of schools―and favors empowering parents and students to choose among options they find attractive. Top-down approaches pour more money into a broken system. School choice programs achieve more satisfactory results with more modest amounts of money, because the dynamic is shifted in favor of the parent, not the system. Government-focused education reform analyzes the forest; school choice promotes the best interest of the trees. School choice programs like CSF-Portland prove that good things happen when parents are empowered to vote with their feet on behalf of their own kids.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

Read Blog Detail

Oregon Legislature Should End Its General Fund Lottery Addiction

A state legislator from Milwaukie, Carolyn Tomei, has introduced a package of bills designed to address some of the problems associated with the Oregon Lottery.

Perhaps the most important of the three bills is HB 2167, which would cap the total amount of lottery revenue going to the state’s general fund. Under her proposal, all money above the cap would be diverted into a so-called “rainy day” fund, used only during times of fiscal crisis.

This would begin to address a central problem with the lottery, which is the mixed incentives it creates for legislators. On one hand, most of them pretend to be concerned about the growing problem of gambling addiction. Yet, when they use lottery money to pay for base funding of important state programs, they are incentivized to promote gambling.

When priorities collide, the lottery as cash cow always trumps concerns about gambling addiction.

The best solution would be to get state government out of the gambling business entirely; but since that’s not politically feasible, cutting off some of the revenue to the state’s general fund is a good first step. If the cap is set low enough, it potentially could force legislators to look elsewhere for base funding, or maybe even cut spending. Either option would be better than the status quo.

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

Read Blog Detail

Bring Oregon into the School Choice Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Blog Detail

Freedom and Opportunity Are the Future of Education

Next week is National School Choice Week. Every January, National School Choice Week highlights the need for effective educational options for all children.

Planned by a diverse and nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations, National School Choice Week features special events and activities that support school choice programs and proposals. The world’s largest celebration of education reform, the 2013 School Choice Week will feature more than 3,500 independently planned events across 50 states.

According to, “Participants in National School Choice Week believe that to improve student achievement, boost graduation rates, and improve American competitiveness in the global job marketplace, families must be empowered to choose the best educational options for their children. These options include high-performing public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, private schools, digital/online learning, and homeschooling.”

Students have different talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. The landscape of educational options to meet those needs is far more diverse today than it was even a few years ago. Freedom in education is good for all children, not just for children deemed by the state to be “at risk” or in “failing schools.” Parents, not government bureaucracies, should decide which learning environment is best for their children and be empowered to choose those schools. It’s becoming increasingly evident that more choices in education are the way of the future. For more information, visit National School Choice Week online at

Cascade Policy Institute will host a National School Choice Week School Choice Policy Picnic on Wednesday, January 30, at noon. Cascade founder Steve Buckstein will discuss the importance of school choice and where we go from here to get more of it in Oregon. Those interested in attending can RSVP here.


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director and Director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland program at Cascade Policy Institute.

Read Blog Detail

Empowering Parents Gives Low-Income Children a High-Quality Education

Fourteen years ago, the late philanthropists Ted Forstmann and John Walton challenged local donors across the country to join them in pledging $200 million to start the first national K-8 scholarship program in the country. They planned to help 40,000 low-income children get a head start in life with a quality education in the private or parochial schools of their parents’ choice. But instead of 40,000 applications, they received 1.25 million from low-income parents everywhere―more than 31 times the number of scholarships available.


Forstmann and Walton found out quickly: Low-income parents were desperately seeking a high-quality education they couldn’t find in their local public schools, and they were willing to pay what they could for it. A modestly sized tuition scholarship would make all the difference to their families―and their children’s futures. In Baltimore, 44% of the eligible population sent applications. Thirty-three percent applied in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., 26% in Chicago and Atlanta, 29% in New York City, and 32% in Saint Louis. In Portland, Oregon, more than 6,600 applied for 500 available scholarships. Since 1999, the Children’s Scholarship Fund (CSF) has invested $483 million in private scholarships for more than 130,000 children.


The Children’s Scholarship Fund’s mission is to maximize educational opportunity by offering tuition assistance in grades K-8 for alternatives to faltering public schools and by supporting education reform and parental choice efforts. CSF is the country’s largest charity helping parents to send their children to the schools of their choice. By offering parents the chance to choose which school best fits their child’s needs, CSF puts power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. And since every family is required to pay a minimum of $500 towards tuition (many pay much more), every CSF scholarship is truly a hand up, not a handout.


CSF believes that when parents have real choices in their children’s education, children have better chances at success in school; and the data have borne this out. A Harvard study found that CSF parents were about five times more likely to give their children’s schools an “A” than public school parents. CSF scholarship recipients are more likely to graduate than their public school peers, as demonstrated by studies in the Bay Area, Charlotte, Denver, and Philadelphia. Studies of CSF students in Baltimore, Charlotte, Los Angeles, Memphis, and Philadelphia found their test scores were higher than those of their counterparts in nearby public schools. Harvard evaluations of the CSF program in three cities (New York, Washington, D.C., and Dayton) showed that scholarships narrow the achievement gap between black and white students in math and reading by about half.


The private schools CSF students attend typically spend one-third to one-half what neighboring public schools spend per student with much better results (the average tuition for CSF students in 2011-12 was $4,020). CSF scholarships demonstrate that a relatively small philanthropic investment (the average scholarship award was $1,579 in 2011-12), combined with a contribution from the parent, can provide a private school education and a better chance of graduating from high school.


Ted Forstmann once said, “Every child, regardless of their parents’ income, should have access to a quality education―an education that will not only prepare them for successful private lives, but help them to build cohesive communities and a strong democracy. We believe if you give parents a choice, you will give their children a chance.”


Today, nearly half the children born into poverty will stay in poverty as adults, but a key path to changing that outcome is an education that leads to high school graduation and future employment. CSF helps empower parents to put their children on that path. Thanks to the generosity of Forstmann, Walton, and every donor at the local and national levels who have supported this unique charity, more than 130,000 children have been a given that chance.


Will you join with the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland in helping low-income Oregon children get a hand up in life with a solid elementary education? When matched by a grant from the national Children’s Scholarship Fund, your gift of any size helps a low-income child attend a private school. You can give securely online at


Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute and Director of the privately funded Children’s Scholarship Fund-Portland, which provides partial tuition scholarships to Oregon elementary students from lower-income families.

Read Blog Detail

National School Choice Week

Please join us for Cascade’s second Policy Picnic theme for the month of January! Cascade Founder and Senior Policy Analyst, Steve Buckstein, will be leading a discussion on School Choice in Oregon on Wednesday, January 30, at noon.

Join other local supporters of School Choice in celebrating National School Choice Week for this Policy Picnic!

Steve will talk about the history of school choice in Oregon, why it’s such an important issue, and how we can get more of it.

Admission is free. Please bring your own lunch. Coffee and cookies will be served. Space is limited to ten guests on a first come, first served basis, so sign up early. To RSVP, email Patrick Schmitt at or call 503-242-0900.

Sponsored by

Read Blog Detail

Making College Even More Expensive

Governor Kitzhaber has decreed that by 2025, 40 percent of Oregonians should have earned at least a four-year college degree, 40 percent should have a two-year degree, and the remaining 20 percent should have a high school diploma or its equivalent.


Now, State Treasurer Ted Wheeler wants taxpayers to help pay the rising cost of those college degrees and offset the “soaring debt” students are incurring. His Opportunity Initiative would create a permanent fund to “….both increase student aid grants in the short-term, and also put Oregon on a path toward a long-term solution to the problem.”


Unfortunately, it likely will do just the opposite. Third-party funding from the state or federal government actually raises higher education costs as institutions increase tuitions to grab that extra cash.


That would be bad enough; but it will be even worse, because the Treasurer proposes to finance this cool new scholarship fund with $500 million in general obligation bonds in 2014 and smaller bond issues over the next thirty years. The revenue generated from the bond proceeds will be dedicated to student assistance, with the hope that in 30 years that revenue can cover the so-called “needs gap” for two years of post-secondary education for every Oregon student. Whether or not the investment assumptions of the proposal work out, taxpayers will be on the hook to repay the bonds plus interest long into the future.


Worse yet, there is even evidence that more government funding of higher education actually translates to slower state economic growth. That’s likely because individuals know their own needs better than politicians do, so leaving the money in private hands produces better economic results.


Academics such as Charles Murray, Richard Vedder, and Carl Bankstron go further, arguing that four-year degrees aren’t what they used to be and that state funding simply wastes precious financial and human resources.


Whatever the value of a college degree to an individual, it’s becoming clear that state funding of those degrees is likely to cost taxpayers more than they gain.

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

Read Blog Detail

Does Obama’s HHS Mandate Make “Religious Freedom Day” an Empty Proclamation?

Every year, the President declares January 16 “Religious Freedom Day.” On that day in 1786, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was enacted into law, protecting freedom of religion in Virginia and serving as a precursor to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


“Our Nation was founded by people seeking haven from religious persecution,” said President George W. Bush in his administration’s final proclamation (2009), “and the religious liberty they found here remains one of this land’s greatest blessings. As Americans, we believe that all people have inherent dignity and worth. Though we may profess different creeds and worship in different manners and places, we respect each other’s humanity and expression of faith….No human freedom is more fundamental than the right to worship in accordance with one’s conscience.”


President Obama’s 2012 proclamation reaffirmed the importance of the free exercise of religious beliefs: “Drafted by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Statute formed the basis for the First Amendment, which has preserved religious freedom for both believers and non-believers for over 220 years….My Administration continues to stand with all who are denied the ability to choose, express, or live their faith freely, and we remain dedicated to protecting this universal human right and the vital role it plays in ensuring peace and stability for all nations.”


However, as of this month, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act restricts Americans’ ability to “live their faith freely” in specific―and to many, vitally important―ways. The Department of Health and Human Services directive popularly referred to as “the HHS mandate” requires almost all employers to include coverage of contraceptives, sterilization procedures, and abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals (such as “morning-after” and “week-after” pills) without copayment in their employee insurance policies. If employers don’t, they face fines of $100 per day, per employee.


The HHS mandate has a narrow conscience exemption that does not include the vast majority of religiously affiliated employers and institutions which object to providing these services on moral grounds. The mandate also does not exempt regular businesses whose owners object. So, despite President Obama’s routine homages to the American tradition of religious freedom and conscience rights, federal law under his Administration requires Americans to pay for as policyholders, and to provide as employers and insurers, things their faith may teach are morally wrong.


Forty-three religiously affiliated organizations sued the federal government last year over this infringement on their right to operate in accordance with their moral beliefs, but they were not alone. For-profit businesses including the craft store chain Hobby Lobby also filed suit. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit public interest legal institute representing Hobby Lobby’s owner-founders, explains its clients’ situation:


“The Green family has no moral objection to the use of preventive contraceptives and will continue its longstanding practice of covering these preventive contraceptives for its employees. However, the Green family cannot provide or pay for two specific abortion-inducing drugs. These drugs are Plan B and Ella, the so-called morning-after pill and the week-after pill. Covering these drugs, as the government is forcing them to do under the threat of $1.3 million penalty per day, would violate their most deeply held religious belief that life begins at conception, when an egg is fertilized….”


“The Green family respects the religious convictions of all Americans, including those who do not agree with them. All they are asking is for the government to give them the same respect by not forcing them to violate their religious beliefs.”


Members of the Obama Administration routinely refer to the First Amendment right to “free exercise” of religion as “freedom of worship.” This is dangerously incomplete. “Free exercise” of religion is more than the ability to choose whether or not to affiliate with a religion or to worship on weekends. “[T]he ability to…live [one’s] faith freely,” which the President supported in his 2012 proclamation, requires the ability not to violate one’s faith and moral beliefs in everyday life, including in one’s business practices.


The courts should not allow the Obama Administration to compel Americans like the Green family to provide abortifacient drugs against their conscience or else to pay fines so substantial that they jeopardize the existence of their business. As long as the Executive Branch remains inflexible on the HHS mandate, President Obama’s proclamation about “bear[ing] witness to those who live in fear of violence and discrimination because of their beliefs” is just empty words.

Kathryn Hickok is Publications Director at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization, and a graduate of the University of Portland.

Read Blog Detail

Federal Relief Aid Is the New Entitlement

Recently, the governors of New York and New Jersey sent a joint letter to Congressional leaders expressing their outrage that the “fiscal cliff” legislation did not include more than $50 billion in federal aid for damages caused by Hurricane Sandy. Although the federal aid is likely to be approved by mid-January, this minor delay was deemed an outrage by the two governors, who said: “When American citizens are in need we come to their aid. That tradition was abandoned in the House last night.”

In fact, the real American tradition has been to help neighbors recover through voluntary aid and private investment. Prior to about 1964, most Americans would have been dumbstruck at the attitude of politicians who think federal taxpayers “owe” them billions of dollars in relief. Apparently, federal disaster relief is now another entitlement program, along with Social Security, Medicaid, and food stamps.

Since I have friends and family living in Manhattan, I certainly feel for those whose homes have been destroyed by Sandy, and I’m willing to help financially if asked politely. But when elected officials start acting like spoiled teenagers and “demand” that I turn over part of my income for their constituents, I feel a lot less charitable.

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

Read Blog Detail

Understanding Why Oregon’s Wind Energy Mandate Won’t Work

Please join us for Cascade’s monthly Policy Picnic on Wednesday, January 16, at noon. Cascade President and CEO, John A. Charles, Jr. will be discussing Oregon’s wind energy mandate.

Since 2007 the state legislature has required large electric utilities to purchase increasing amounts of wind power, with the promise that this will be “green” and “sustainable.”  Unfortunately, integrating large amounts of intermittent sources such as wind and solar into the regional grid is costly, makes the system less reliable, and is likely to increase regional levels of air pollution. This discussion will focus on how the grid works and why the green power mandate is a public policy dead end.

Admission is free. Please bring your own lunch. Coffee and cookies will be served. Space is limited to ten guests on a first come, first served basis, so sign up early. To RSVP, email Patrick Schmitt at or call 503-242-0900.

Read Blog Detail