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.

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.

 

John 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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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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Voice for Choice – Manuel Castañeda

My name is Manuel, and I’m a father and an Oregon business owner. When my daughters were younger, they attended our local public elementary school in Beaverton, Oregon. One day I went to have lunch with the two girls, but only one came out.

My younger daughter, Stephanie, had had her schedule switched to include an English as a Second Language (ESL) class. Knowing that Stephanie, a native speaker of English, had problems communicating with her grandparents in Spanish, I went to the school office to find out why Stephanie was taking ESL.

The school official with whom I spoke could not provide a good reason why Stephanie, who was born in Hillsboro, needed to be in an ESL class. I told her that Stephanie needed help with math and not with learning a language she spoke better than me. The official told me that I would need to go to downtown Beaverton and get permission from the “Migrant Intake Center” to move Stephanie.

The school official’s response was insulting to me. I was a migrant once when we moved to Washington County with my family in 1979. Stephanie has never been a migrant. The hospital where she was born can practically be spotted from the roof of the school. I left shaken and wondering if there was a statute of limitations for being considered a migrant. Would I ever be considered a resident? How about the second generation born here? Would they continue to be considered migrants?

The experience energized me to learn more about the ESL government program. I finally figured out why it was almost impossible to remove a kid from one of these programs. The schools get paid extra money for every kid enrolled in these special needs programs.

Stephanie was moved the following year to another public school. This school was only about two miles away from the previous school. She was enrolled there without being put in the ESL program. Two or three months later, she was back in the ESL program again.

When I met with the school principal, he agreed with me that he had no idea why Stephanie was part of the program. He also agreed with me that Stephanie didn’t need the ESL program and that she would be given more math and science classes.

The next day, he said he wanted to meet with me again. When I refused to meet without him telling me what the meeting would be about, he finally told me that they would like Stephanie to stay in the ESL program, but that she could do other work there, like math or science.

That was the moment when I finally knew that the financial benefits to the school took priority over the future of my daughter.

When I went to the car, I called my wife and told her that we had to work day and night and weekends if necessary in order to find a better way to educate our kids. The system didn’t have the best interests of our kids at heart, but we did. We needed to start looking for ways to provide the best possible future for our kids. My wife and I have done that ever since.

All Oregonians should have the right to provide the best education possible for their kids. It doesn’t matter who provides the education or in what location. Thousands of families face the same issues that I did with my kids. They need to have a choice. For those who are happy where they are, no one should force them to leave their schools. But no bureaucracy will ever have the best interests of children at heart the way we parents do, and that’s why I’m a voice for choice.

I’m Manuel and I’m a ‘Voice for Choice’

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Voice for Choice – Kathryn Hickok

My name is Kathryn, and I’m the director of the Children’s Scholarship Fund-Oregon. CSF-Oregon empowers K-8 students from lower-income Oregon families to get a quality education and a “hand up” in life by providing partial tuition scholarships to the schools of their parents’ choice.

Through my work with CSF-Oregon, I’ve watched how school choice changes the trajectories of students’ lives, sparking their passion for learning and helping them fulfill their potential.

Every child has one chance to grow up, and each year is precious. Parents know it: The right school can change a child’s life. Empowering parents to give their children the education that’s right for their own talents and needs can unlock the unique potential of every child—today.

The mother of one of our CSF Scholars told me, “I wish that the education system could understand that not every child fits into the same-sized box, and everyone needs to do what is right for their family.”

She’s right.

Parents know a solid education prepares their children for life, and that path begins in grade school. But many families, like this mom’s, are trapped in 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 may be 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. And sadly, 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.

School choice gives all parents the power to find the right educational fit for their child, right when he or she needs it—not some other year, not when “things change,” not when another school reform plan “fixes the system.”

One of CSF-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.”

All students should feel that way, and with school choice they can.

Children have different talents, interests, and needs; and they learn in different ways. Connecting students with the teachers and experiences that will help them succeed and ignite their passion for learning is what education is all about.

Whether children find that in a local public school or in a charter, magnet, private, online, or home school (or some combination of them), the important thing is that all children have the chance to reach their potential in an educational environment in which they can truly thrive.

School choice puts parents in the “driver’s seat” of their children’s education, and that’s why I’m a voice for choice.

I’m Kathryn and I’m a ‘Voice for Choice’

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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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Voice for Choice – Jenni

My name is Jenni, and I’m a mom and a teacher. My son Henry is incredibly bright, but he wasn’t particularly successful academically. He was struggling, and yet we knew how capable he was. He got to the point where he did not see himself as smart because he felt like he was failing. As a mom that breaks my heart, and as a teacher that breaks my heart, because I believe every kid can succeed.

So, we tried a variety of educational options for him: brick-and-mortar public school, private school, and homeschool. Regardless of schooling platform, obstacles persisted. While there was some effectiveness at each school, he still didn’t have the level of focus that he needed.

This led us to try an online schooling format for him, through a charter school, and we finally found an option that fit. This structure afforded him flexibility, opportunity, and accountability. By removing the constraints that are inherent in many school platforms, the online environment was more customizable to his needs. He has an advisory teacher who is fully invested in his success, who guides our son with a kind mix of caring and reality.

One of the best things we’ve found with the online school is that Henry is able to pursue interests and opportunities that might not have been available in other settings. Henry is now better equipped for the future that lies in front of him. We are incredibly thankful that Baker Charter School has been the vehicle for Henry’s education these past few years.

Henry didn’t have what he needed to succeed in the public school format. The online format made a huge difference for him. He feels great about himself. He’s got a lot of different things going that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. To me, that’s where the power of school choice comes in.

School Choice in Oregon gives kids real chances that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Just one, two, or three alternative options aren’t enough! I know firsthand that each format has something to offer, and it might be just exactly what your children or grandchildren need. Henry thrived in one particular environment, and I’m so grateful we found it. School Choice will give all Oregonians the option to find a platform that works for our children’s learning styles, so they can believe in their own potential and finally succeed in school.

I’m Jenni and I’m a ‘Voice for Choice’.

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Voice for Choice – Bobbie Jager

My name is Bobbie Jager, and I’m a mom and grandma—13 children and 17 grand kids! They are all are equally wonderful, and I can now relate with my mom who used to say, “If I had known the grandchildren were going to turn out so well, I would have had them first!”

In 2012 it was my honor and privilege to be chosen as Oregon’s Mother of the Year. As a mother, I want school choice because I am advocating for Oregon’s future—the children of our state. It’s always been my desire that each of my children would find a path that would give them a spark to ignite their personal education “fuse,” and I want that for all Oregon children.

My passion for education options started because we were a military family who moved around a lot, and so we had a wide range of experiences with schools. When my first two children, both boys, entered the Department of Defense Elementary at Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, Florida, they were getting by, but they weren’t prospering. I augmented their school work, as I always had, by reading to them at night and working with them to help with concepts that I thought the school should be teaching them but did not seem to be. I truly thought then that my children needed to work harder. But I quickly learned that the problem was not my children, but the teaching style and attitude of the teachers and administrators.

Unfortunately, my two sons were scarred from their first exposure to “one-size-fits-all” education. We later moved to Saudi Arabia, and my boys still struggled to find a spark at school that would ignite their interest in learning. Our 3rd child, a daughter, entered the school system there and was determined to do well. Her hard work paid off, and thankfully that’s how she lit her personal spark.

But when we moved again, this time to a base in Arizona, my children experienced some extreme bullying and very poor teachers. That’s when I first explored the option of homeschooling. After qualifying, I developed my own curriculum for our oldest four. I fell in love with homeschooling them, as there was a notable difference in their enthusiasm for education. I opened up a whole new world for them.

From that point forward, we changed their education paths, as needed, through several more moves. All said and done, we’ve tried them all: charter, online, private, public, and home schools. Children don’t all learn the same way, and parents are the best judges of that. Luckily, we were able to choose what was best for each of our children. But not all families have the same choices.

Choice is the key word. I realized that we can choose almost anything, in every part of our lives! We choose where to shop, go to church, eat, and even, for the most part, our medical care. But when it comes to choosing our child’s future, by choosing an education that best fits their style of learning, we are told “no.” Someone else, who knows nothing about our child, is usually the one who makes that choice.

There are some choices available to parents, but they come at a price. A price that many parents pay when they see their child not getting what they so desperately need. They may choose to pay for private schools, or pay in a parent’s time for homeschooling. And, even then, it may largely be out of the parent’s hands. Caps, limits, or lotteries are set in schools; and homeschooling may not be an option. The school may be too far away, or your child may not get in. All of this frustrates parents and students.

When hope is lost, and kids don’t feel they are capable or smart enough to succeed, they might give up too soon. That’s not fair to families without access to the limited choices currently available. And it’s not fair for the future of Oregon.

School Choice in Oregon is needed to provide the best education possible for each child. These are our children; and it is time, for us as parents, to use our voice to make the choice. The power of choice will finally give Oregon families the flexibility they need to find their children’s spark, wherever it may be.

I’m Bobbie and I’m a ‘Voice for Choice’

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