Education is the “great equalizer” — no matter where you live, to what racial or socio-economic subgroup you belong, or what level of education your parents completed, you can take your education and become whatever you want to be. Providing for students now is an investment in our state’s current and future success. For that reason alone, a quality education is our best economic development tool, and our state should prioritize funding for education. That being said, my commitment to education cannot be measured exclusively through the lens of securing additional revenue from the public; to do so is like suggesting that a plant’s growth is solely a function of how much water you pour on it. All the water in the world won’t make a plant grow if it is not rooted in the proper soil, or if the water already poured on it missed the target. We must therefore prove to the public that we are the best possible stewards of the money already spent before we demand more.
I would like to see public policy that provides citizens with an education that allows them to achieve the full measure of their and their family’s own dreams. Learning is an individual experience; even the best schools in Oregon have students not learning to their full potential. It’s wonderful when a community has a great school, but that doesn’t mean it will work for every child living in that school’s attendance zone. For that reason, I am a strong proponent of policies that promote educational choice for families.
However, I am well aware of the challenges in Oregon educational policy. In 2013 the national education newspaper Education Week reported that Oregon ranks 43rd among the states for its educational policies and results. Even worse, the major cause for the dismal rating is because Oregon ranked dead last in the nation for improving student achievement in math and nearly last in improving reading skills. The achievement deficiencies were based on scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test that is the only one given to a representative sample of students in grades four and eight in every state. The analysis compared scores in reading and math from 2003 with scores from 2011. Among the overall findings were that fourth-graders in every state made more progress in math than those in Oregon; every other state also outperformed Oregon when it came to getting more eighth-graders to score at the advanced level in math. Oregon ranked 45th in improving fourth-grader reading skills between 2003 and 2011, and was 48th at assisting minority students to catch up to non-minority students in fourth-grade reading. This report should sound alarm bells all over the Oregon educational establishment: our education dollars have not been well-spent.
Now, Oregon has another challenge: despite outspoken opposition by parents and educational professionals, the state has adopted the entirety of U.S. Department of Education “Common Core” Standards without any public input. This new set of educational standards was adopted even though the Brookings Institute has demonstrated that there is no link between the rigor of state educational standards and student achievement in the standard-adopting state. Moreover, despite a lack of any academic basis for imposing such standards, the Common Core initiative was instituted in Oregon in a classic top-down fashion through a Governor’s order as an attempt to impose a one size fits all, top-down approach to education on all American schools; it certainly threatens to subordinate local control of public schools to a nationalized “one-size-fits-all” system in place of providing broad educational choices at the State and local level. In fact, neither states nor parents (including homeschool parents) will be allowed to make any changes to Common Core. Even more insidiously, Common Core will build a comprehensive database to measure student progress as well as gather personal, non-academic data from students and will utilize tracking systems to use longitudinal data to follow individuals through school and into and through their work life – resulting in massive invasions of privacy. As a legislator, I will support efforts to resist implementation of Common Core.
So, what is the best public policy for education we could adopt now? Given that our own public school system has failed and our education bureaucracy is tone deaf to rational policy, it seems that the best solution for our families is to have the freedom to direct their own expenditure of existing education dollars. Thus, I support a tuition voucher system that will allow students to take their government-funded education dollars to the school of their choice — including home schooling if that is what their family deems the best option. Right now the public schools and teacher unions behave as if they “own” the per-student funding provided by government policy. We need to change that reality and make the family the true director/owner of those dollars. If students could use tuition vouchers, private school tuition would not be a barrier to true educational choice so that private schools would be as available to poor and struggling families as are public schools currently. True school choice where families control the dollars spent works for our colleges and universities; why not apply the same ideas to primary and secondary education?