Category: Education

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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Fresh Spinach for Indifferent Students: Oregon’s Costly Farm-to-School Program

By Helen Cook

When did you last hear a child profess his love for spinach?

Oregon’s Farm-to-School program awards grants to school districts across Oregon to give them the funds needed to purchase fresh foods from local farms and vendors. Advocates hope that by using the words “fresh” and “local,” K-12 students will nurture a healthier taste for fruits and veggies. This hope prompted legislators to budget almost $15 million for the program at the end of the 2019 session.

This is a significant increase from the program’s $200,000 budget in 2012, largely because legislators rephrased the bill to allow entities separate from Oregon school districts to accept grants. This technical rewording allows for summer meal programs, nonprofits, and even the local vendors selling food to the districts to accept grant money.

But frozen foods benefit students more than local produce does. Frozen fruits and veggies have equal or superior nutritional value and lower costs. This is important for school districts who prepare meals by the thousands.

Since the program’s main benefit is not Oregon’s students, I suggest the state reevaluate the expensive Farm-to-School program to be more cost-effective and call this current grant program what it is: a subsidy for local vendors.

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

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Is Oregon Really “Disinvesting” in Education?

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

The Portland Association of Teachers declares Oregon has suffered “a 30-year disinvestment in education.” That’s a bold charge. Thirty years is a long time, and disinvestment is a strong word.

To disinvest literally means “to reduce or eliminate” investment. Is it true that Oregon has reduced investment in public schools over 30 years? No.

Multnomah County’s Tax Supervising and Conservation Commission has been tracking school spending in the Portland area for more than 30 years. A review of Portland Public Schools spending since 1985 shows that per student spending in Oregon’s largest school district has steadily increased over the past 30 years, as shown in the figure below.

Over the past three decades, both total spending and spending on instruction at PPS have grown faster than the rate of inflation. In recent years, Portland schools have spent about $30,000 per student, with almost $8,000 per student spent on instruction.

 

Portland Public Schools spending in dollars per student

Since the last recession, PPS total spending has accelerated. Voters in the district have approved nearly $1.3 billion in construction bonds since 2012. In 2011 and 2014, voters approved and renewed a local option property tax increase for Portland schools. Another renewal of the $95 million tax is expected to be on the ballot this year.

In Oregon, total expenditures per student were $13,037 in 2016, the most recent year for which information is available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Oregon is exactly in the middle of the state rankings of per student total expenditures. Six states, including Oregon, Washington, and California, have per student spending that is within five percent of the national average. Total expenditures include salaries, employee benefits such as health insurance and PERS, supplies, and debt service, among other things.

According to the state’s Legislative Revenue Office, annual state and local education spending in Oregon has increased by about $1.7 billion over the past ten years. This amounts to $2,350 in increased spending per student and has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation.

Despite Oregon’s smack-dab-in-the-middle per student spending, the state ranks near the bottom in graduation rate, produces mixed results on standardized tests, and has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio in the U.S.

These dismal outcomes are not the result of disinvestment; they are a result of misinvestment—a diversion of education spending away from classroom teaching.

The Public Employee Retirement System and other benefits are the biggest drivers of Oregon’s education finance problems. The cost of paying for public employee retirements has doubled over the past ten years. In 2009, school districts paid approximately 15% of payroll to fund PERS. The latest estimates indicate next year, districts will have to pay 30% of payroll. A big piece of current so-called “instructional” expenditures is actually spent to pay for teachers who have retired.

In general, health insurance premiums for teachers in Oregon are lower than those of teachers in California or Washington, but Oregon teachers pay a much smaller share of the premium. Research indicates Oregon teachers pay approximately 12% of the premium, while teachers in California and Washington pay 22-45%.

Many school districts have taken on additional debt to reduce their PERS obligations and fund construction. Interest payments on debt are taking money out of classrooms. Census data indicate Oregon schools pay almost $600 per student per year in interest payments alone, making it the fourth highest state in per student interest payments.

Oregon taxpayers continue to support and invest in the state’s education, and any claims of disinvestment are simply wrong. Because of misplaced priorities, too many dollars earmarked for education are not used to teach students the skills they need to be productive and successful adults. PERS must be overhauled, and educational spending should be directed toward increasing high school graduation rates and making measurable improvements in academic achievement.

Eric Fruits, Ph.D. is Vice President of Research at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on May 21, 2019.

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Education Savings Accounts Give Parents the Power of Choice in K-12 Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This month, the Tennessee legislature passed a new Education Savings Account (ESA) law for its state’s K-12 students. The law creates the second ESA program that will operate in the Volunteer State.

The new Tennessee law provides families there with alternatives to low-performing public schools in the form of about $7,300 per student in education funding annually, if parents want to withdraw their children from their zoned district schools. Parents may spend ESA funds on private school tuition, tutoring, educational therapies, or other education-related expenses.

Education options are widespread in America, unless a family can’t afford an alternative to their zoned public school. Education Savings Accounts give parents the ability to customize their children’s education in the ways that are best for them as individual students. ESAs put parents, rather than government school bureaucracies, in the “driver’s seat” of their kids’ education. Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee are operating ESA programs today.

Unlike school voucher programs, ESAs give parents the flexibility to spend education funds on more than just private school tuition. Depending on the specifics of individual ESA programs, approved uses for ESA funds also can include textbooks, online classes, tutoring, testing, AP classes, dual-enrollment courses, homeschool expenses, and education-related fees. Some ESA programs operate like controlled-use debit cards, with which parents can pay only for legitimate education expenses.

Senate Bill 668, introduced in Oregon’s 2019 Legislative Session, would create an Education Savings Account program here. Participating children from families with income less than 185 percent of the federal poverty level and participating children with a disability would receive $6,500 deposited into their accounts. All other participating children would receive $4,900 deposited into their accounts. Funds remaining in a child’s account after expenses are paid each year could be “rolled over” for use in subsequent years, including post-secondary education within Oregon.

ESA programs are frequently designed so the amount of funding support provided to participating students would be less than the amount the state would have spent for a student to attend a public school, with the state recouping the difference. In this way, ESAs can provide a net fiscal benefit to state and local government budgets.

A fiscal analysis of Oregon’s SB 668 found the program, if enacted, likely would cost the state approximately $128 million a year but would lead to savings of about $130 million a year to local school districts, for a net state and local impact of approximately $2.2 million in reduced costs. There would be virtually no net impact on per-student spending for students who continued to choose public K-12 education.

Because parents, not the government, direct the spending of funds in their children’s ESAs, ESA programs have stood up to constitutional challenges. A state’s government is not involved in picking “winners and losers” in the non-public education sector, nor is it directing taxpayer funds to religious institutions. Schools chosen by parents are accountable to parents, who are free to “vote with their feet” and enroll in schools that are providing value. Because ESAs are not a “use it or lose it” benefit, parents are further incentivized to use their ESA funds with education providers with whom they are satisfied.

Senate Bill 668 will receive an informational hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, June 5, at 1 pm at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. If you support more parental choice in education, you may wish to attend the hearing or to submit your own testimony or comments to the committee online.

Children in 29 states and the District of Columbia currently benefit from 62 operating school choice programs. Oregon students, regardless of their ZIP Codes or income levels, deserve the opportunity for an education that fits their unique needs and goals. Education Savings Accounts put more options within reach for all students, especially those who need them the most.

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

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Tennessee’s New Education Savings Account Law Puts More Parents in the “Driver’s Seat” of Their Kids’ Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This month Tennessee enacted a new Education Savings Account (ESA) law for its state’s K-12 students. The law creates the second ESA program that will operate in the Volunteer State.

Education options are widespread in America, unless a family can’t afford an alternative to their zoned public school. The Tennessee legislation provides families there with alternatives to low-performing public schools in the form of about $7,300 per student annually to spend on private school tuition, tutoring, or educational therapies.

Education Savings Accounts work like controlled-use debit cards. Parents can spend allocated funds on approved school expenses or educational services. ESAs put parents, rather than public school bureaucracies, in the “driver’s seat” of their kids’ education.

Senate Bill 668, introduced in this year’s Oregon Legislative Session, would implement an Education Savings Account program here in Oregon. Senate Bill 668 will receive an informational hearing in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, June 5, at 1 pm. If you support parental choice in education, attend the hearing or submit your own testimony online.

Children in 29 states and the District of Columbia currently benefit from 62 operating school choice programs. Oregon students deserve the same opportunities for an education that fits their needs.

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

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Why Record-Breaking Revenues Aren’t Enough

By Eric Fruits, Ph.D.

This week, Oregon is facing a one-day teacher strike, with educators demanding more money for schools. Also this week, the legislature will consider a billion-dollar-a-year sales tax on business. All this is happening in the face of record-breaking tax revenues.

Research published by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that Oregon tax revenues are nearly 30 percent higher than the pre-recession peak. Only one other state has seen bigger growth in tax revenues.

But even a gusher in tax revenues can’t keep pace with government spending. Despite a booming economy with record low unemployment, the number of people on the Oregon Health Plan has nearly doubled from pre-recession levels. Over the same period, the annual cost of the public employee retirement system has grown by 60 percent, or double the rate of tax revenues.

Nearly every problem with state and local budgets can be traced to PERS costs and Medicaid expansion. Our budget problems are spending problems, not revenue problems.

While we recovered from the last recession, our elected leaders are making dangerous decisions today that will lead to devastation when the next recession hits. If our government can’t balance the books during a boom, we won’t survive a bust.

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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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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Free to Choose with Freedom Scholarships

By Miranda Bonifield

School choice made a splash in the headlines last month with the proposal of the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act. The proposed legislation would create a federal income tax credit for donations to organizations which grant scholarships to school-aged children and create an efficient path forward for students in states which have yet to embrace educational choice.

Tax credit scholarship programs have already successfully assisted thousands of students in states like Florida, where 92% of families enrolled report satisfaction. 71% of the 108,000 students would otherwise be in a public school. But because of their option to choose, they are statistically more likely to attend a school which parents feel is positively shaping their character and to attend college after graduation. Tax credit scholarships have been encouragingly successful on the state level. Encouraging donations to scholarship-granting nonprofit organizations, while leaving states the flexibility to opt in or out of the program, is an optimal way to encourage school choice without federal overreach.

Closer to home, Senate Bill 668 is currently in the Oregon Senate Committee on Education. The bill would create Education Savings Accounts for Oregon students. ESAs direct a portion of the funds designated for a child’s education in a public school to an account which could fund the family’s choice of private, online, or homeschool options.

If implemented, both the federal and the state proposals would be real victories for American students.

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

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Cultivating Educational Choice with Education Savings Accounts

By Miranda Bonifield

A Portland public school made headlines last week for offering parents the chance to choose their child’s teacher for next year as part of a school fundraiser. Teachers cried “foul” because they thought the opportunity gave unfair advantage to students whose families were from higher income brackets.

Why not give the same opportunity to all students?

Senate Bill 668 would implement a universal Education Savings Account (ESA) program in Oregon. ESAs direct a percentage of the funds the state would otherwise spend to educate a student in a public school to the student’s family to spend on private school tuition and/or other approved educational expenses.

In other words, every family could choose their child’s teacher.

Florida implemented an Education Savings Account program for special needs students in 2014. Of the students enrolled during the first two years, 40% used the funds to customize (mix and match) aspects of their child’s education. About half of these families chose to educate their children outside of a brick-and-mortar private school. The more than 10,000 students enrolled are a tiny fraction of the 2.59 million students in Florida public schools, but their choices illustrate an important point: Families need and want options that the state does not provide in their district public schools.

Oregon’s education system perpetuates a disconnect between the interests of families seeking the best possible outcome for their children and of schools seeking the fairest possible outcome for all children. We can agree that Oregon’s teachers are overworked, that many of our schools are underperforming, and that something must change to give the best possible shot to each student. Education Savings Accounts are an efficient, compassionate, effective way to provide quality education to all Oregon’s students—regardless of income.

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

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Education Savings Accounts: A “Ticket to the Future” Today

By Kathryn Hickok

Derrell Bradford has spent his adult life passionately advocating for education reform through parental choice. Derrell grew up in southwest Baltimore and received a scholarship to a private high school. Better than anyone, he knows the power of choice to unleash a child’s potential.

“A scholarship is not a five-year plan or a power point…,” Derrell explained recently. “It’s a ticket to the future, granted today, for a child trying to shape his or her own destiny in the here and now….”

Choices in education are widespread in America, unless you are poor. Affluent families can move to different neighborhoods, send their children to private schools, and supplement schooling with enrichment opportunities. Lower- and middle-income families, however, are too often trapped with one option: a school in need of improvement assigned to them based on their home addresses. Families deserve better.

It’s time Oregon took a serious look at the diversity of options parents now have in school choice programs across the country, including Education Savings Accounts. Oregon has a history of bold experimentation in other policy areas. It’s time to expand the role of parents choosing―and the market delivering―better education for Oregon’s children through educational choice, because every child deserves a ticket to a better future today.

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

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