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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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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Charters Schools Are a Laboratory for Innovation Within Public Education

By Kathryn Hickok

This is National Charter Schools Week. Did you know almost half of Washington, D.C.’s public school children attend tuition-free charter schools? In fact, our nation’s capital now has 120 charters, run by 66 nonprofit organizations.

President Bill Clinton signed the legislation authorizing D.C.’s charter schools more than twenty years ago. Since then, D.C. charter school students have made significant academic gains. A 2015 study on urban charter schools by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that D.C. charter students are learning the equivalent of 96 more days in math and 70 more days in reading than their peers in traditional public schools.

David Osborne, director of the project Reinventing America’s Schools at the Progressive Policy Institute, has called D.C. “the nation’s most interesting laboratory” for public education. In an article for U.S. News and World Report, Osborne compares the traditional public school system with a Model T trying to compete on a racetrack with 21st century cars. “…[F]or those with greater needs,” he writes, “schools need innovative designs and extraordinary commitment from their staffs.”

Charter schools’ entrepreneurial governance model allows them to innovate, adapt, and specialize to meet the particular needs of students. Their success in educating children who face the greatest challenges to academic achievement is fueling an even greater demand for the kind of choice in education that charter schools have come to represent.

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

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What’s at the Root of Oregon’s Education Problems? (Steve Jobs Already Told Us the Answer)

By Steve Buckstein

The Oregon legislature will embark on an “impossible mission” to achieve student success in our public school system. Members of the Joint Committee on Student Success will travel the state this year, asking everyone they meet what constitutes success in their communities. They then will return to the marble halls of the State Capitol and recommend that every school be mandated to do “what works” somewhere—of course, at a higher cost to taxpayers than they’re already paying.

The Committee could save time and trouble if it listened instead to just one famous Oregon college dropout: the late founder of Apple, Steve Jobs. Back in 1996, Jobs said:

“What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent. It’s a political problem….The problems are unions. You plot the growth of the National Education Association and the dropping of SAT scores, and they’re inversely proportional. The problems are unions in the schools. The problem is bureaucracy. I’m one of these people who believes the best thing we could ever do is go to the voucher [school choice] system.”

Of course, things in education have gotten worse in the two decades since Steve Jobs told us the answer—while virtually every area of our lives not monopolized by government has improved. If Jobs were alive today, he might ask us, “Can you hear me now?”

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

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

By Kathryn Hickok

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

The Oregon Education Association, a teachers union, blames this abysmal news on “inadequate funding of public education.” But according to the National Education Association’s Rankings & Estimates report for 2016 and 2017, revenue per Oregon student in Average Daily Attendance is nearly $14,000, including local, state, and federal funding.

That puts Oregon more than four percent above the national average.

The truth is, Oregon already spends more than 33 other states; and Oregon public schools spend more than $396,000 per year for each 30-student classroom. Subtract the average teacher salary plus benefits of some $85,000, and Oregonians should ask where the additional $300,000 are going before even thinking about raising taxes to address the alleged “inadequate funding” of public schools.

Teachers unions routinely claim that taxpayers are “underfunding” public schools—and that’s why so many kids don’t make it to graduation. But the one-size-fits-all, government-run school system just isn’t meeting the learning needs of all kids today. Handing more money to the same system won’t change anything. But giving parents the power of choice in their children’s education would change everything.

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

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