Oregon School Choice: Proceed With Caution

By William MacKenzie,
Oregon writer,

Parents of Oregon’s K-12 public school students are between a rock and a hard place. Stay with their faltering public school or push for more school choice.

As a whole, it’s a dark moment for Oregon’s public schools:

  • One of every five Oregon high school students don’t graduate in four years.
  • A depressingly small percentage of Oregon students in grades 4 and 8 tested at a proficient level or higher in mathematics and reading in 2022 in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
  • Severe mental health challenges and behavioral issues have ramped up in schools as students have shifted from online to hybrid learning and back to in-classroom learning.
  • Oregon’s young people have been abandoning public schools at an distressing rate. Enrollment declined 3.7%. in the 2020-2021 school year, another 1.4% in the 2021-2022 school year and 0.1% in the 2022-2023 school year. Public school enrollment statewide dropped by more than 30,000 students, or 5%, from October 2019 to October 2022 statewide, the second highest in the country, according to Stanford University.  Only Mississippi, not a state we want to envy, lost a larger share.

Conservative public policy research organizations such as the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, say the time is ripe for more school choice.

“Oregon families urgently need more options so they can find the right fit for their children to learn effectively and safely,”  says Cascade. “Traditional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private and parochial schools, homeschooling, and tutoring are all paths to success for students.”

The frustration many parents have with Oregon’s underperforming public schools is understandable as well.

As a conservative, it’s tempting to unreservedly join the school choice chorus and to think that going full speed ahead in broadening school choice will calm down the tempest and enhance learning.

But some caution is needed.

The problem is that for all the handwringing about traditional brick-and-mortar public schools by school choice evangelists, they too often fail to acknowledge that the “do your own thing” alternatives aren’t necessarily better. And some are worse, much worse.

No matter how bad some public schools are, the fact is bad teachers, weak curriculum. incompetence and sloth are not found just in public brick-and-mortar schools.

Options school choice advocates usually trumpet include public brick-and-mortar charter schools, public online charter schools, private schools and homeschooling.

There are currently 133 public charter schools serving 46,275 students in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Of those, 102 are physical brick-and-mortar schools and 31 are virtual/online/cyber schools.

Under Oregon law, a charter school is a separate legal entity operating under a binding agreement with a school district sponsor. Charter schools in Oregon, including online charters, are publicly funded, so parents don’t pay tuition. Instead, the Oregon Department of Education distributes State School Fund money to each school district that sponsors a charter school.

Unfortunately, the performance of Oregon’s charter schools is all over the map in terms of tested proficiency in key areas, graduation rates, parent satisfaction and other criteria.

For example, at Oregon Charter Academy (formerly Oregon Connections Academy), a heavily advertised online charter school sponsored by the Santiam Canyon School District, just 35.1% of all students taking the state assessment in Mathematics, 54.6% of all students taking the state assessment in English Language Arts and 51.4% of all students taking the state assessment in Science tested “Proficient” in 2021-2022.

Some other online public charter schools in Oregon are much worse.

At Cascade Virtual Academy, an online charter school sponsored by the Mitchell School District, just 21.7% of all students taking the state assessment in Mathematics, 35.2% of all students taking the state assessment in English Language Arts and 24.8% of all students taking the state assessment in Science tested “Proficient” in 2021-2022.

The experiences of many Oregon children during the pandemic also revealed that exclusive online schooling led to depression, undue stress, low levels of social inclusion, anxiety and learning losses for many students.

Oregon’s brick-and-mortar charters have an uneven record as well.

For example, at The Academy for Character Education, a K-12 public charter school in Cottage Grove, 58% of all students taking the state assessment in Mathematics, 63.8% of all students taking the state assessment in English Language Arts and 48.8% of all students taking the state assessment in Science tested “Proficient” in 2021-2022.

In contrast, at the Ione Community Charter School, a K-12 public Charter school in Ione, just 26.8% of all students taking the state assessment in Mathematics, 40.8% of all students taking the state assessment in English Language Arts and 13.3% of all students taking the state assessment in Science tested “Proficient” in 2021-2022.

The same variability in quality exists with private schools in Oregon.

At private schools, parents, not the state, pay the bills. There are 483 private schools serving 57,768 K-12 students in Oregon, with about half religiously affiliated (most commonly Christian and Catholic) according to Private School Review.

The Cascade Policy Institute, which asserts that the K-12 public school system is a “dysfunctional government school monopoly,” wants to establish an Empowerment Scholarship Account program under which a portion of state-level education funding would be converted to portable accounts for students to use wherever they want, which would benefit private schools.

Cascade praises a new Arkansas law which creates Educational Freedom Accounts for all K-12 students, to be phased in by 2026. Individuals choosing a Freedom Account will get 90% of what public schools get per student in state funding from the previous school year, equal to $6,600 for the current year. They can spend this money on private school tuition, textbooks, tutoring, and other approved educational expenses.

But “private” does not automatically mean “superior”. The academic performance of private schools can vary widely and it can be hard to pin down their performance because they are not required to participate in statewide testing.

So parents take their chances when they send their children to private schools.

School choice could become an even more contentious issue in Oregon if there’s pressure to provide taxpayer dollars to religious schools.

Wisconsin, Iowa and Utah already offer vouchers to parents to enroll their children in approved private and religious schools. An effort is also underway in Oklahoma to extend publicly paid vouchers to online religious schools. The Catholic Church in Oklahoma City and Tulsa wants to create St. Isidore of Seville Catholic Virtual School, which would be the country’s first publicly-funded religious charter school.

For many Oregon parents, the preferred alternative to public or private schools is homeschooling.

Oregon law (ORS 339.035) allows a child (between ages 6, and 18, grades 1-12) to be taught by a parent, guardian, or private teacher in the child’s home. Homeschool families may choose their own curriculum, and may use the Oregon’s Academic Content Standards to guide their instruction; however, there is no requirement to adhere to Oregon academic standards.

Oregon education officials estimate that most of the more than 20,000 students in Oregon who are not in public schools are being homeschooled, about 40% more than in 2019, before the pandemic moved classes online.

Parents of students between the ages of 6-18 are supposed to notify their local Education Service District (ESD) of their intent to home school within 10 days of beginning to home school, but compliance is not comprehensive.

A homeschooler is expected to take standardized testing by August 15 of the summer following the completion of 3rd, 5th, 8th, and 10th grades, as long as the child has been homeschooled since at least February 15 of the year preceding testing (18 months before the test deadline).

The required tests include grade-level math (concepts, application, skills), reading (comprehension), and language (writing, spelling/grammar, punctuation, etc.)

With the above information, you might think that public oversight of homeschoolers is comparable to that of public school because the state knows how all homeschooled students are performing. You’d be wrong.

As Earthsong Homeschool says, “Homeschooling in Oregon is easy. There are no laws specifying record keeping, attendance, or mandatory subjects. You do not need a college degree or teaching degree to teach your child. You register your child as homeschooled and test every few years. It’s that easy. In Oregon, you do not have to use grade level curriculum. Your child does not have to do what their public-school counter parts are doing.”

Homeschooled students are not required to take common standardized tests that measure academic progress. They can opt out, and many of them do.

Homeschoolers’ tests are also scored on a percentile, so the score a child gets represents how many people taking the same test got a lower score. In other words, the scores don’t represent how well the child knows the material, only how well the child performs relative to every other homeschooler taking the test. Even then, if a child scores at the 15th percentile or above, then the ESD simply files the report and there’s no follow-up.

Homeschoolers also don’t have to report their scores to anybody unless their education service district (ESD) asks for them. But the state cares so little about how these children are doing that ESDs almost never request test scores, according to the Oregon Department of Education.

Not that it would make much difference if ESDs did request the scores.

That’s because homeschoolers only need to report their composite percentile score. This is an almost useless single percentile representing a child’s performance on all three subjects together. It’s almost as though the state doesn’t really want to know how homeschoolers are doing.

Earthsong points out that Oregon homeschooling parents “can even legally be radical unschoolers”, relying on a child’s innate curiosity and desire to learn by not following any set homeschool curriculum.

Psychologist Peter Gray, author of “Free to Learn,”  wrote in Psychology Today that unschooling parents  “allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests,”

Unschooling advocate Akilah Richards frames it as a social justice practice, defining unschooling as a “child-trusting, anti-oppression, liberatory love-centered approach to parenting and caregiving.”

Critics of unschooling assert that it ignores research on the benefits of direct instruction for mastering skills in math and reading, which can leave children without basic literacy or numeracy skills, and is correlated with higher rates of drug use, delinquency, social isolation, and poor academic performance.

So, what to do?

As King Mongkut reluctantly cries in the play, The King and I, “Tiz a puzzlement!”

There is some validity to the view that the traditional public school system in the United States, a monopoly financed by taxes whether or not your child attends, and a one‐​size‐​fits‐​all approach that doesn’t respond to the needs of diverse students, provides few incentives to innovate or respond to families’ needs.

It’s also true that opinion on public education is souring, with Americans now giving lower grades to schools both locally and nationally than before the pandemic. Today, only about one in five Americans give the nation’s schools an A or B. Last year, Gallup found public satisfaction with K-12 schools was at its lowest level in more than 20 years.

In a June 2022 poll, Gallup found that only 13 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in U.S. public schools.

A shift to an education system that offers more choices could drive quality improvements in traditional public schools, because there would be a financial incentive for them to retain students.

Broader school choice would also allow parents to seek educational institutions that fit their children’s needs better than their traditional public schools.

“A universal (school choice) program would generate enough demand for robust market entry in the long run, meaning more choices for all families,” argues the Cato Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank. “If parents do not perceive that certain schools or services will be appropriate for their children, they will not choose them—enticing schools to improve or force them to close down. The schools that are a quality match for many children will be financially rewarded and expand in the long run.”

“If the primary school choice mechanism is the supply of high‐​quality schools, we should allow the market to determine which institutions are high quality,” says the Cato Institute. “The choices of individual parents, rather than bureaucrats, can determine which schools remain open and which ones close.”

Clearly, it’s criminal to keep children in lousy underfunded public schools with lousy teachers and lousy administrators, and with no ability to opt out, to choose a better alternative.

But let’s not fool ourselves. More choices could mean a further splintering of the body politic.

A shift to an education system that offers a multitude of taxpayer-funded choices could end up shattering efforts to foster national identity and rich common values that foster mutual respect and active citizenship.

As Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-American philosopher and writer, put it in a graduation address at the University oi Pennsylvania, education is “a means both to foster the autonomy of the child—the capacities to make his way in the world—and to promote the welfare of the polity.”

If American parents all “do their own thing”, as many school choice evangelists advocate, the divisiveness and polarization inflicting American society today is likely to increase and we’ll become even more atomised.

Disadvantaged and vulnerable children may also be shortchanged in the maelstrom. And as more children are taught only what their parents want them to learn, shared values will erode. School choice shouldn’t be a license for parents to handicap their children. America has an interest, after all, in an educated populace.

In short, the pell-mell rush toward more school choices will not be an unalloyed good if it undermines academic achievement, community, justice, common principles, mutual respect and political coexistence.

All this suggests teacher unions, parents and the legislature need to move forward with care if Oregon’s children are to be well-served in their education.

So, yes to school choice, but be damn careful.