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.

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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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Voice for Choice – Jenni

My name is Jenni, and I’m a mom and a teacher. My son Henry is incredibly bright, but he wasn’t particularly successful academically. He was struggling, and yet we knew how capable he was. He got to the point where he did not see himself as smart because he felt like he was failing. As a mom that breaks my heart, and as a teacher that breaks my heart, because I believe every kid can succeed.

So, we tried a variety of educational options for him: brick-and-mortar public school, private school, and homeschool. Regardless of schooling platform, obstacles persisted. While there was some effectiveness at each school, he still didn’t have the level of focus that he needed.

This led us to try an online schooling format for him, through a charter school, and we finally found an option that fit. This structure afforded him flexibility, opportunity, and accountability. By removing the constraints that are inherent in many school platforms, the online environment was more customizable to his needs. He has an advisory teacher who is fully invested in his success, who guides our son with a kind mix of caring and reality.

One of the best things we’ve found with the online school is that Henry is able to pursue interests and opportunities that might not have been available in other settings. Henry is now better equipped for the future that lies in front of him. We are incredibly thankful that Baker Charter School has been the vehicle for Henry’s education these past few years.

Henry didn’t have what he needed to succeed in the public school format. The online format made a huge difference for him. He feels great about himself. He’s got a lot of different things going that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. To me, that’s where the power of school choice comes in.

School Choice in Oregon gives kids real chances that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Just one, two, or three alternative options aren’t enough! I know firsthand that each format has something to offer, and it might be just exactly what your children or grandchildren need. Henry thrived in one particular environment, and I’m so grateful we found it. School Choice will give all Oregonians the option to find a platform that works for our children’s learning styles, so they can believe in their own potential and finally succeed in school.

I’m Jenni and I’m a ‘Voice for Choice’.

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Voice for Choice – Bobbie Jager

My name is Bobbie Jager, and I’m a mom and grandma—13 children and 17 grand kids! They are all are equally wonderful, and I can now relate with my mom who used to say, “If I had known the grandchildren were going to turn out so well, I would have had them first!”

In 2012 it was my honor and privilege to be chosen as Oregon’s Mother of the Year. As a mother, I want school choice because I am advocating for Oregon’s future—the children of our state. It’s always been my desire that each of my children would find a path that would give them a spark to ignite their personal education “fuse,” and I want that for all Oregon children.

My passion for education options started because we were a military family who moved around a lot, and so we had a wide range of experiences with schools. When my first two children, both boys, entered the Department of Defense Elementary at Tyndall Air Force Base, Panama City, Florida, they were getting by, but they weren’t prospering. I augmented their school work, as I always had, by reading to them at night and working with them to help with concepts that I thought the school should be teaching them but did not seem to be. I truly thought then that my children needed to work harder. But I quickly learned that the problem was not my children, but the teaching style and attitude of the teachers and administrators.

Unfortunately, my two sons were scarred from their first exposure to “one-size-fits-all” education. We later moved to Saudi Arabia, and my boys still struggled to find a spark at school that would ignite their interest in learning. Our 3rd child, a daughter, entered the school system there and was determined to do well. Her hard work paid off, and thankfully that’s how she lit her personal spark.

But when we moved again, this time to a base in Arizona, my children experienced some extreme bullying and very poor teachers. That’s when I first explored the option of homeschooling. After qualifying, I developed my own curriculum for our oldest four. I fell in love with homeschooling them, as there was a notable difference in their enthusiasm for education. I opened up a whole new world for them.

From that point forward, we changed their education paths, as needed, through several more moves. All said and done, we’ve tried them all: charter, online, private, public, and home schools. Children don’t all learn the same way, and parents are the best judges of that. Luckily, we were able to choose what was best for each of our children. But not all families have the same choices.

Choice is the key word. I realized that we can choose almost anything, in every part of our lives! We choose where to shop, go to church, eat, and even, for the most part, our medical care. But when it comes to choosing our child’s future, by choosing an education that best fits their style of learning, we are told “no.” Someone else, who knows nothing about our child, is usually the one who makes that choice.

There are some choices available to parents, but they come at a price. A price that many parents pay when they see their child not getting what they so desperately need. They may choose to pay for private schools, or pay in a parent’s time for homeschooling. And, even then, it may largely be out of the parent’s hands. Caps, limits, or lotteries are set in schools; and homeschooling may not be an option. The school may be too far away, or your child may not get in. All of this frustrates parents and students.

When hope is lost, and kids don’t feel they are capable or smart enough to succeed, they might give up too soon. That’s not fair to families without access to the limited choices currently available. And it’s not fair for the future of Oregon.

School Choice in Oregon is needed to provide the best education possible for each child. These are our children; and it is time, for us as parents, to use our voice to make the choice. The power of choice will finally give Oregon families the flexibility they need to find their children’s spark, wherever it may be.

I’m Bobbie and I’m a ‘Voice for Choice’

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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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Oregon Parents Deserve to Be the Voice for Kids’ Education Options

By Bobbie Jager

For the second year in a row, Oregon has reported the third-lowest graduation rate in the country. With a four-year adjusted public high school graduation rate of 74.8% (2015-16), Oregon only beats Nevada and New Mexico, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The typical response to this kind of bad news is for teachers unions and legislators to claim that taxpayers are “underfunding” public schools; and that’s why so many kids don’t make it to graduation. But Oregon already spends more on K-12 education than 33 other states. 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 in school spending.

As a mother and parental choice advocate, I have been involved with education for 38 years, and I have been deeply involved at the state level here in Oregon for five. I have listened to story after story of young people whose parents went to extraordinary lengths to help them succeed in school. Whether through earning a scholarship to a private school, moving to another neighborhood or public school district, winning a charter school enrollment lottery, or choosing online or home school options, Oregon families have amazing tales to tell. While there are many inspiring success stories, there are also far too many heartbreaking examples of frustration and of families spending years fighting the government school bureaucracy.

I have interacted with the public school system for decades. Sadly, nothing is changing for the better. When is enough, enough? The one-size-fits-all, government-run school system isn’t meeting the learning needs of many kids today. Handing more money to the same system isn’t changing anything.

As parents, we have the right and the responsibility to say it’s time for us to have the power to choose the education options that are best for our children. We are the ones who tuck our children in at night, help them when they can’t understand their schoolwork, hold them when they “feel dumb” because they’re just not getting it, or support and encourage them when they are a “failure to launch” into adult life because they didn’t get the education they needed to get a good start. But parents are too often the last ones invited into the conversation or listened to.

To raise awareness about all the choices parents have for K-12 education today, Americans from coast to coast are celebrating National School Choice Week January 21-27, 2018. Beginning seven years ago with 150 events, the Week has grown exponentially ever since, becoming the world’s largest education-related public awareness effort. National School Choice Week (www.schoolchoiceweek.com) is nonpartisan and nonpolitical and does not advocate for or against any legislation.

National School Choice Week celebrations include school fairs, parent nights, school tours, educational field trips, homeschool information sessions, student performances, celebratory rallies, and more. More than 32,240 events and activities will focus on all education options available today, including traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, and homeschooling. More than 313 events will take place in Oregon alone, sponsored by private schools, charter schools, and other organizations.

Hundreds of thousands of parents already “vote with their feet” to get their children the education that is best suited to their talents, interests, needs, and learning styles. They sacrifice whatever it takes to make sure their children have the chance to succeed. Whatever kinds of schools parents choose, the landscape of educational options to meet students’ learning needs is more diverse today than ever.

I believe that with Oregon’s latest round of dismal graduation results, we are at a tipping point. There are no “do-overs” when a child is growing up. We must get it right from the start. More choice in education is the way of the future. Join us in celebrating National School Choice Week, and help us make a change for your—and for all—children.

Bobbie Jager, Oregon’s 2012 “Mother of the Year,” is a parental choice advocate and the School Choice Outreach Coordinator for the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. A version of this article was originally published by the Pamplin Media Group and appeared in The Portland Tribune on January 25, 2018.

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Give Oregon Kids the Power of Educational Choice, Like Kids in Florida

By Kathryn Hickok

Denisha Merriweather failed third grade twice. Today, she is finishing her master’s degree, thanks to Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program. The key to Denisha’s success was her godmother’s ability to remove Denisha from a school that was failing her, and to send her to the school that provided her with the support she needed.

On December 13, a Florida appeals court reaffirmed the groundbreaking program’s constitutionality. This is a major victory for the 100,000 low-income Florida children and children with disabilities who are attending schools where they can thrive, thanks to scholarships.

A lawyer supportive of the court’s ruling said, “…[T]hese students will not be forced, against the will of their parents, to return to whichever public school their ZIP Code dictates….This court correctly recognized that school choice programs expand opportunity and achievement for students, and without doing so at the expense of the public school system.”

The one-size-fits-all, government-run school system isn’t meeting the learning needs of all kids today. Oregon continues to have the third-lowest graduation rate in the country. 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.

Oregon students should be able to find their own paths to success, just like kids in Florida.

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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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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A How-to Guide on Submitting Written Testimony


Whether or not you can attend in person, we now have details for sending your written testimony which will be posted online prior to the June 13th hearing. View a sample here

  • Email written testimony to sed.exhibits@oregonlegislature.gov. It goes to staff of the Senate Education Committee (sed).
  • The subject line of your email should be: Testimony on SB 437 for posting on OLIS (OLIS stands for Oregon Legislative Information System)
  • The best way to send testimony is to attach a PDF file of your document to your email message. If you simply put your testimony in the body of the email or attach a Word-type document then the Committee staff will convert it into a PDF file before posting it online. You then run the risk that the conversion may not look exactly as you would like it to look. Check out these instructions on how to save a Word document as a PDF
  • Here is the list of Senators on the Education Committee including the Chair, Senator Arnie Roblan (D), who kindly scheduled this hearing for us. All these Committee members will automatically receive any written testimony you send to the Committee. If you see a member who is your own State Senator, you may want to contact that individual Senator directly or try to meet with them prior to the meeting.

We expect the hearing to begin promptly at 3 pm and last approximately 30 minutes. Only invited testimony will be heard live; the audience will be there for support but will not be asked to testify in person. 

When posted on OLIS, your written testimony will appear on the SB 437 page under Meeting Material/Exhibits link. It may be posted soon after you send it, or it may appear closer to the hearing date. Note that we are supporting the bill with the -1 Amendment which sets somewhat lower ESA account dollar amounts to ensure that the bill will be roughly “revenue neutral” so as not to reduce spending per pupil in the public school system. 


How to Testify before a Committee

  • Start your testimony saying something like: “Chair Roblan and members of the Senate Education Committee, I urge you to support Education Savings Accounts for Oregon students such as those set out in SB 437 with the -1 Amendment.” Don’t ask them to “vote” for the bill because this is an informational hearing only.
  • Note where you live in Oregon and how you are a stakeholder in the education system (mom, dad, grandma, teacher, and/or taxpayer, etc.)
  • Talk about your own family’s experiences with school choice or talk about how your family would benefit from more school choice in Oregon.
  • Talk about the benefits of Education Savings Accounts – NOT vouchers.
  • Be respectful. Don’t attack legislators or school choice opponents.
  • Ask legislators to help all students access more school choices.
  • Understand that SB 437 will not pass into law this year, but you want it or something like it to pass as soon as possible for all families in Oregon, and for your family in particular if you have children in school now or who will be entering school soon.
  • View a sample here.


Feel free to share this information with others, and include the link to RSVP if they plan to attend in person. Let them know that children are welcome to come with their parents to learn how the legislative process works.

Finally, we request that anyone sending written testimony also send us a copy, or send us a draft first and we’ll be happy to give you suggestions before you submit it. Send testimony to Steve Buckstein at [email protected].

If you need help drafting or submitting your written testimony, please call us at (503) 242-0900 or email Steve.