Category: Education

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.

Click here for PDF version:

18-22-Lessons_in_Education_from_Gandalf_the_GreyPDF

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for PDF version:

11-28-18-School_Choice_Improves_Student_Mental_HealthPDF

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for PDF version:

11-7-18-Survey_Shows_FL_Scholarship_Parents_Overwhelmingly_Satisfied_With_Children’s_SchoolsPDF

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for PDF version:

10-17-18-Watch_School_Choice_Changes_Lives_Online_NowPDF

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for PDF version:

10-3-18-Oregon_Parents_Need_More_Options_for_Children_with_Learning_ChallengesPDF

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for PDF version:

9-19-18-Can_School_Choice_Change_LivesPDF

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for the PDF version:

7-25-18-The_Smartest_Choice_Is_School_ChoicePDF

Read Blog Detail

Time to Stop the PERS Pac-Man from Eating Teachers’ Salaries and Taxpayers’ Pocketbooks

By Steve Buckstein

What do Pac-Man and public pensions have in common? An intriguing 2016 national study of pension debt and teacher salaries recently answered this question. Depending on what economic assumptions are made, it’s likely that unfunded public pension liabilities for all states and local governments exceeded $6 trillion in 2017. Based on the same assumptions, Oregon’s share of those liabilities likely approached $50 billion.

The study, The Pension Pac-Man: How Pension Debt Eats Away at Teacher Salaries, by Chad Aldeman of Bellweather Education Partners, concluded that unfunded public pension liabilities were eating away at teacher salaries in every state—just like the old arcade game Pac-Man. This happens because the school districts teachers work for have to pay an increasingly larger share of their budgets into retirement funds for teachers who are no longer teaching, at the expense of those currently in the classroom.

In effect, America’s public school teachers are being charged on average about $6,800 a year—money that could be boosting their paychecks—to preserve what are becoming increasingly inequitable public pension systems. The inequality stems from the shifting nature of state pension systems that compensate older (and currently retired) teachers at higher rates than they will younger ones.

So where do Oregon teachers stand? Compared to the national average of about $6,800 per teacher, Oregon basically has to charge our teachers $7,398 a year to cover our unfunded PERS liabilities. That’s more than in all but 14 other states.

One might conclude that Oregon teachers consequently have lower salaries than teachers around the country because of this large pension hit. Not true. The nation’s largest teachers union reported that the average Oregon teacher earned $61,862 a year in 2016-17, compared to the national average of $59,660. That put our teachers in thirteenth place for average teacher pay among the 50 states.

Then again, Oregon teachers might be expected to earn more because, again according to that recent union report, in 2017 Oregon had more revenue per student in its public school system than 30 other states. We had $14,827 per student in average daily attendance, compared to the national average of just $13,900.

So, even though Oregon teachers are being hurt by our large public pension debt, they still earn more than teachers nationwide, and even more relative to their Oregon neighbors who pay the taxes to fund those higher teacher salaries while earning less than the national average themselves. All-in-all, Oregonians compensate our public school teachers relatively well.

Even though the latest, so-called Tier 3 or OPSRP PERS system has a less generous defined-contribution element than Tier 1 PERS workers earned, taxpayers should not be on the hook for unknown, and unknowable, pension costs going forward. It’s unknowable costs like these that have led to the current, nearly $7,400 annual debt burden on our teachers, districts, and taxpayers.

If Oregon had no unfunded PERS liabilities, three things could happen. Teachers might argue they should see an average raise of almost $7,400 per year, while school districts might want to put that money toward other district expenses that benefit students. Taxpayers might expect to see their Oregon personal income tax bills reduced if the state managed its public pension funds responsibly.

But none of these outcomes will occur because Oregon hasn’t managed PERS responsibly. As long as this continues, the outcome will be what’s unfolding now: higher taxes and greater school district payments to fund pension liabilities that few saw coming—and that threaten to continue, like Pac-Man, to eat away at teacher salaries, school district budgets, and taxpayer pocketbooks.

To stop the PERS Pac-Man, our Governor and legislators need to get serious about PERS reform, specifically by ending the “defined-benefit” elements of PERS for all work done in the future, either by new employees or current ones. Instead, the legislature should move all public employees, including teachers, to 401(k)-style defined-contribution retirement plans, which are the only kind of plan available to most taxpayers. The costs to future teachers, schools, and taxpayers will only get worse if we don’t end the PERS Pac-Man once and for all.

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

Click here for the PDF version:

18-10-Time_to_Stop_the_PERS_Pac-Man

Read Blog Detail

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.

Click here for the PDF version:

6-20-18-Stop_Waiting_Voice_for_Choice

Read Blog Detail

How the PERS Pac-Man Eats Teacher Salaries

By Steve Buckstein and Kathryn Hickok

What do Pac-Man and public pensions have in common? An intriguing 2016 national study of pension debt and teacher salaries recently answered this question. Depending on what economic assumptions are made, it’s likely that unfunded public pension liabilities for all states and local governments exceeded $6 trillion last year. Based on the same assumptions, Oregon’s share of those liabilities likely approached $50 billion.

The study, The Pension Pac-Man: How Pension Debt Eats Away at Teacher Salaries, by Chad Aldeman of Bellweather Education Partners, concluded that unfunded public pension liabilities are eating away at teacher salaries in every state—just like the arcade game. This happens because the school districts teachers work for have to pay an increasingly larger share of their budgets into retirement funds for teachers who are no longer teaching, at the expense of those currently in the classroom.

To stop the PERS Pac-Man from eating teacher salaries, Oregon’s Governor and state legislators need to get serious about PERS reform. They should end the “defined-benefit” elements of PERS for all work done in the future. Instead, public employees, including teachers, should move to 401(k)-style retirement plans. The costs to future teachers, schools, and taxpayers will only get worse if we don’t end the PERS Pac-Man once and for all.

Steve Buckstein is Senior Policy Analyst and Founder of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. Kathryn Hickok is Executive Vice President at Cascade.

Click here for the PDF version:

6-13-18-How_the_PERS_Pac-Man_Eats_Teacher_SalariesPDF

Read Blog Detail