Cascade Policy Institute’s Christina Martin spoke recently to over 360 high school students about the importance of political involvement and the need for reforming our educational institutions to increase school choice.
Hello, thank you for letting me speak to you today. I am a licensed lawyer, but I am not practicing law. I am instead, trying to shape the creation of law here in Oregon through lobbying and educating Oregonians about important issues. I work for Cascade Policy Institute. Cascade is a free market think tank that thinks up and advocates policy that promotes economic opportunity, individual liberty, and limited government. You can check us out online at CascadePolicy.org or find us on Facebook. Basically, I research issues, write articles, go to Salem and lobby legislators, speak to grass roots groups, and try to get citizens to help me improve Oregon’s policy.
So I was asked to speak to you today about getting involved with politics now.
The truth is that I was not exactly involved in politics when I was your age. Sure, I debated the issues. I read the newspaper often enough and debated issues with friends. But I wasn’t doing much. There were many reasons for that. I thought I was too busy. I thought that I needed to know everything about an issue to get involved. I thought that it was too hard and excused my lack of involvement by saying that I didn’t have time and I couldn’t make any real difference yet. But now I know better. And I want you to know better.
Why should you bother getting involved? Just to have something to put on a resume? To help you get in college? To impress people? Sure, that probably would help. But it is a pretty lame reason to get involved. Get involved because you care. Get involved because you love your neighbors, your friends, your families, and justice itself.
But simply caring and having an opinion is not enough. You need to care enough to pursue truth, wisdom, and good policy.
You should care much because the problems are severe. The nice thing about this financial crisis is that it has awakened many people to the reality that governmental policy matters. It can cause real problems and it can get rid of some too. The focus of the public lately has been mostly on government spending and policies surrounding Wall Street.
But there are so many other important issues that will make or break our economy in the future. One of these is education.
Right now, the graduation rate in Oregon is about 84% according to our Department of Education. If we use the U.S. Department of Education’s measurement methods, it is around 68%. So in other words, only around 2/3rds of high school kids are graduating with a regular diploma in Oregon. In some schools, the graduation rate is closer to half. Even worse, more and more colleges are having problems with new entrants lacking a sufficient education. I am not talking about slacker schools. I am talking about solid colleges. The U of O, OSU, WSU, and UW have had to add many remedial courses to cater to the growing ranks of students who cannot do basic college-level math or English. Why does any of this matter? Because America’s success has come from a beautiful economic system that has rewarded innovation and industriousness, and from individuals who have the basic passion and skills to work hard and well.
Did you know that on average, we spend about $10,000 per year on a public school student in Oregon? Interestingly, that is much more than the average private school tuition (which is around $7,200) and much more than the average charter school per-pupil expenditure in Oregon (which is around $5,600).
$10,000 per public school student is about average in the U.S., too. We spend more money per student on education than anywhere in the world, yet we place near the bottom of the stack of developed nations in international standardized testing. Interestingly, we were spending only around $4,300 in inflation-adjusted dollars in the 1970, yet student performance has not gotten better.
We keep throwing money at the problem, but it is not working. We need reform. If you have been following the news, you know that paying for teacher performance is one reform idea being debated. President Obama’s education secretary has also been advocating greater use of charter schools because they allow for innovation and competition. Online education also holds much promise.
I support education tax credits. Education tax credits would give parents a tax credit for money that they spend on educating their children. For example, a parent sending her child to a private school or home schooling her child could take a tax credit for some portion of those expenses.
Some cities and states already have adopted programs that increase school choice — tax credits, vouchers, or substantial charter school programs. These programs have largely been very successful. Interestingly, tax credits and vouchers have similar support among most voters — Republicans or Democrats — yet, it is still a somewhat partisan issue among legislators.
These are issues that we need you involved in. Find out what you believe in and what your principles are. Your principles are ultimately what inform your political opinions. Learn to reason through an issue. Learn the role that your heart plays in shaping your intellectual opinions.
Pascal said that reason always yields to sentiment. So you must know your heart to know reason. In other words, don’t just seek knowledge, seek understanding. Seek wisdom.
In the short time that I have worked for Cascade, I have grown to understand many more things about politics and how the world works. Some of them are really ugly. But others are not. One thing that I have become increasingly convinced about is that you can make a difference. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But maybe a decade, or a lifetime, or maybe far quicker than you could ever imagine.
Let me share a story from Oliver DeMille, founder of George Wythe College, which I got from the founder of another school, Jeff Sandefer, who founded Acton Business School:
The year is 1764. A student named Thomas Jefferson is dumped by his girlfriend, an event so devastating that 20 years later he is still writing about it in his journal. Shortly thereafter, his best friend comes to him and says: “Thomas, we need to talk, I’m getting married.”
Jefferson begins to congratulate his friend but is interrupted. “No, Thomas, we really need to talk, I’m getting married”¦to her.” Jefferson decides to give up on romance and rededicates himself to his studies.
In that same year, 1764, John Adams is a teacher. He writes in his journal that he enjoys teaching because it allows him to escape the frustrating world of business and politics, and gives him a chance to think and learn. Later that year he will meet and marry Abigail.
That same year, James Madison is 13 years old. He is a good student, but so quiet and shy that his parents wonder if he will ever amount to much.
In 1764, George Washington is a businessman. His journal shows that his top priority that year is to pay off his debts, to which he has foolishly given a personal guarantee.
That is the year 1764.
A decade later, this same group of ordinary people will declare independence from the greatest power on the face of the earth and sign it with their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
A decade after that, they will write and help ratify the United States Constitution, which Gladstone called the “greatest document struck by the mind and purpose of men.”
But in 1764, they are just ordinary people, like us. Two students, a teacher, a businessman.
What made these men extraordinary was that they knew who they were and they knew what they valued. They had passion for freedom. They had passion to see a government unlike any other on earth, that would let people live without the constant invasion of arbitrary government power. They wanted representation and they wanted to guarantee liberty.
Do you want to be extraordinary in your life? Then find your passion. Find your calling. And whatever you do — whether it be science, art, law, construction, or some other field — do it as an individual who loves your neighbors and shows it by involving yourself in government. Vote. Call your legislators. Write letters to the editor. At minimum, post thought provoking articles on your Facebook to engage your friends in discussion.
Complaining about an inadequate government is hypocritical if you don’t participate in improving it. So do something. You don’t have to know everything. You don’t have to be perfect. But you do need to find the passion to last through it.
I will close with a quote from Sam Adams about the importance of passion: “It does not take a majority to prevail”¦but rather an irate, tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.”
Christina Martin is a policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.