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Oregon foster advocate backs school choice legislation

By   /   January 22, 2014  /   No Comments

SAVING UP: Oregon might consider a bill that would allow public money to follow students.

SAVING UP: Oregon might consider a bill that would allow public money to follow students.

By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog

Picture this: “Joey,” a foster child in Oregon, needs to be assessed at his school because he isn’t reading at grade level and his teacher is concerned.

Joey is tested, but before an individualized program can be created for him, he’s moved to another school. For various reasons — poor communication between schools or a lack of funding at the new school — Joey’s specific learning plan isn’t made.

“Joey just sits there with his specific need not being met,” Yuko Spofford, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates in Clackamas County, told Northwest Watchdog. “That happens all the time with foster kids. “They’re already behind and they get behind every time they move or they change school or they are held back. It’s almost like retraumatizing them.”

CASA works with court systems in Oregon to connect citizen volunteers with foster children to help place them and move them through the system. In Clackamas County, a suburb of Portland, the group works with between 400 and 500 children a year.

Spofford hopes the Oregon Legislature will consider a bill — the Education Equity Emergency Act — in the short legislative session starting Feb. 3 that would create Empowerment Scholarship Accounts for Oregon students with disabilities or special education needs as well as foster and low-income children. This would allow 90 percent of public funds intended for students to go into individual savings accounts that would follow them and be used for everything from textbooks to private school tuition to tutoring.

The bill is being pushed by the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank that supports school choice. It’s likely to hit opposition from the state teacher’s union, which typically opposes such legislation.

Northwest Watchdog has left a message for the Oregon Education Association, but hasn’t heard back.

The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 1576, was filed Wednesday and received an informational hearing last week in the Senate’s education committee, where proponents testified in favor, but lawmakers didn’t debate the measure. The legislation is part of the Senate Republican Caucus agenda and has multiple Republican sponsors.

The bill will be modeled after a program in Arizona designed by the Goldwater Institute, a Phoenix-based conservative research organization. Jonathan Butcher, the institute’s education director, told Northwest Watchdog that despite some opposition from the state teachers union and school boards, the program is running, with about 730 students using the accounts in Arizona now.

He argues the opposition to these accounts are looking out for adults in the current system.

“That’s not what our focus should be,” he said.

Butcher said two recent surveys by Goldwater in collaboration with the Friedman Foundation found that 90 percent of parents approved the program.

Still, legislation in the Democrat-controlled Oregon Legislature likely has an uphill climb. Last session, proponents of school choice introduced a bill that would have allowed a $1,000 tax credit for parents to use toward their choice of education for their children. Opponents argued it was unconstitutional because the money could be used for religious schools. The bill, Senate Bill 500 and its companion seeking to curb the constitutional argument, both died in committee.

Spofford said the savings accounts could also help teenagers who might be able to use any leftover funds for college.

“In a long term view, it’s such a money saving situation if you pour money into making children’s lives better,” she said. “They will become independent and not require a lot of public assistance when they become adults if they begin to function better. Help kids now while they’re young and they will learn how to become independent and how to become self sufficient.”

Contact Shelby Sebens at Shelby@NorthwestWatchdog.org

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