Alternative schooling in Oregon: is the cure worse than the disease?

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More choices don’t always mean better choices.

Oregon, eager to appease vocal parents, gives them lots of K-12 options if they don’t want to send their children to traditional brick-and-mortar public schools.

This being National School Choice Week, alternative schooling advocates are in a particularly celebratory mood. “The landscape of options to meet the learning needs of today’s students is more diverse than ever, ” Kathryn Hickok,  executive vice president of the Cascade Policy Institute, said on Monday, Jan. 27.  “Empowering parents to choose among these options can unlock the unique potential of every child. “

There’s no question that alternative schooling can be seductive. After all, it can offer flexibility, more curriculum choice, self-paced learning, protection from threatening ideas and religious freedom. And I’m inclined to think that parents should have a role to play in conveying important values to their children.

It’s not clear, however, that all the schooling choices out there are better for the children or are adequately preparing young people to succeed and participate in our complex economy.

In addition, the fragmentation of our educational system may be undermining the need for all members of our society to see themselves in common cause – a necessity for the survival of our democracy. Where too many people are isolated from their peers, they may be less likely to see a relationship of mutual commitment and responsibility to others.

A case study: Junction City School District

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According to the Junction City, OR School District, of all of its  K-12 students in the 2019-2020 school year:

  • 1820 are attending district public schools
  • 74 are attending online public charter schools
  • 37 are being home schooled
  • >52 are attending private schools

Some district students may also be attending brick-and-mortar public charter schools, such as Triangle Lake, Willamette Leadership and Network Charter School, but they are not located within the district’s boundaries.

Students can attend a brick-and-mortar charter school without a release from the Junction City School District and such schools are not required to send the district a roster. The result is that no trail of paperwork is exchanged between the schools regarding Junction City resident students who attend the charter schools.

Online Public Charter Schools

According to the Junction City School District, as of Oct. 2019, district students were attending the following online public charter schools:

  • Oregon Connections Academy  (renamed Oregon Charter Academy in the 2020-2021 school year) – 4 students
  • Baker Web Academy – 42 students
  • Destinations Career Academy of Oregon – 1 student
  • Fossil Distance Learning Programs – 21 students
  • TEACH-NW – 6 students

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FOSSIL DISTANCE LEARNING ACADEMY

The academic performance of individual students attending the online public charter schools cannot be determined on the basis of available data. Only data on the performance of grades as a whole, based on standardized tests taken in English Language Arts, Mathematics and Science, are public.

That means there’s no way of knowing whether the students living within the Junction City School District who attend these schools are doing well or not.

The Oregon Department of Education does, however, collect data on the online schools, and it is dispiriting. It is clear that the schools are drawing children and money away from public schools while failing to provide a good alternative.

Despite that, the schools, also called cyber and virtual schools, are multiplying like fruit flies. “Other states have… increased oversight of fast-growing online schools,” noted a 2017 report by the Oregon Secretary of State’s Audits Division. “In contrast to these states, Oregon’s laws allow online schools to increase enrollment rapidly regardless of their performance.”

While online charter champions churn out a torrent of supportive stories that assert traditional schools are relics, critics are pummeled as Neanderthals unwilling to accept change.

Oregon’s online public charter schools and the districts sponsoring them are listed below:

Sponsoring District Online School 2018-19 Total Enrollment
Baker SD 5J Baker Web Academy 1,808
Mitchell SD 55 Cascade Virtual Academy 69
North Clackamas SD 12 Clackamas Web Academy 445
Eagle Point SD 9 Crater Lake Charter Academy 292
Mitchell SD 55 Destinations Career Academy of Oregon 38
Fossil SD 21J Fossil Charter School 755
Gervais SD 1 Frontier Charter Academy 303
Mitchell SD 55 Insight School of Oregon Painted Hills 305
Gresham-Barlow SD 10J Metro East Web Academy 522
Santiam Canyon SD 129J Oregon Connections Academy 3,886
North Bend SD 13 Oregon Virtual Academy 1,900
Scio SD 95 Oregon Virtual Education 37
Sheridan SD 48J Sheridan AllPrep Academy 128
Frenchglen SD 16 Silvies River Charter School 432
Estacada SD 108 Summit Learning Charter 1,081
Marcola SD 79J TEACH-NW 306
Fern Ridge SD 28J West Lane Technology Learning Center 73
Harney County SD 4 Oregon Family School 266
Paisley SD 11 Paisley School 215

Source: Oregon Department of Education

Oregon Connections Academy (ORCA), the largest online public charter school in terms of enrollment, is a target of many online school critics who argue that such schools stand out more for their aggressive tactics to recruit and enroll students than for their academic excellence. (The school was renamed Oregon Charter Academy in the 2020-2021 school year)

ORCA was placed on Oregon’s federally mandated improvement list after only 21.9 percent of tested students at the school met or exceeded math standards and 41.8% of tested students met or exceeded English Language Arts standards in 2018-19.

Baker Web Academy hasn’t performed well either. Just 28.1% of tested students at the Academy were proficient in math and 56.5 % of tested students were proficient in English Language Arts in 2018-19.

At TEACH-NW, 77.4% of tested students met or exceeded English Language Arts standards, but just 41.9% of tested students met or exceeded math standards in 2018-2019.

Attendance at online schools isn’t their strong suit either.

ORCA attendance has been dreadful. Regular attendance was only 63.4% during the 2018-19 school year and an average of 59.7% over the past three school years. That indicates chronic absenteeism.

At Destinations Career Academy, regular attendance was a dismal 26% in both the 2018-19 and 2017-18 school years. The online school says it combines traditional high school academics with industry-relevant, career-focused electives. Its poor attendance isn’t a very good start for those who will be eventually expected to show up regularly and on time at work.

Then there are graduation rates.

Graduation rates at all Oregon public schools, including online public charters, are calculated the same way by the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) as an “adjusted cohort graduation rate.” That rate is the percentage of all students who graduate from high school with a diploma within a four-year cohort period after they start 9th grade.

Graduation rates for 2019 are based on students who first entered high school during the 2015-16 School Year.

In 2019, the graduation rate for all Oregon public schools was 80.01%.  For the Junction City School District, it was 85.16%. In sharp contrast, the graduation rate at Baker Web Academy was 62.50% and at Oregon Connections Academy 56.40%.

Only the Fossil Distance Learning Program has had a consistently high graduation rate of 83.33% – 100% over the past several years. It is worth noting, however, that Fossil hasn’t been dealing with as many students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income students as the Junction City School District.

TEACH-NW started in 2017 and Destinations Career Academy of Oregon in 2018, so neither has a graduation rate for a cohort that entered during the 2015-16 school year.

Another way to evaluate school performance is to look at students’ on-track performance, the percent of freshman who have at least 25% of the credits needed to graduate with a regular diploma by the beginning of their sophomore year. Students on-track to graduate by the end of their freshman year are more than twice as likely as students who are off-track to graduate within four years of entering high school.

The 2018-19 on-track average was 85% for all Oregon public schools and 82% for the Junction City School District. In contrast, the average was just 62% at Baker Web Academy and 59% at Oregon Connections Academy.  Data is not available for the other online public schools Junction City School District students attended that year.

Even brick-and-mortar charter schools are critical of their online counterparts. While they may be at the same charter dance, they’re engaged in an increasingly hostile pas de deux.

“For a significant number of “students who are attending full-time, fully online schools, the outcomes are pretty devastating,” M. Karega Rausch, vice president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told attendees at an Education Commission of the States’ National Forum on Education Policy.

What all this data indicates is that most Junction City parents enrolling their children to online public charter schools are not choosing superior alternatives to district schools.

Homeschooling 

How about children who are being homeschooled instead of sent to the traditional public schools?  Is that a superior alternative?

As noted earlier, there are 37 registered homeschoolers in the Junction City School District, a small portion of the estimated 22,000 statewide.

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 be tempted to say that public oversight of homeschoolers is obviously comparable to that of public school because the state knows how all homeschooled students are performing. You’d be wrong.

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

Second, homeschoolers’ tests are 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.

Third, homeschoolers 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 test scores.

That’s because homeschoolers would 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.

What is clear, then, is that nobody really knows whether Junction City parents who are homeschooling their children are providing them with an equal or superior alternative to District schools.

Private schools

According to the Junction City School District, more than 52 students in the district attend private schools, but obtaining an accurate count is difficult.

“Private schools are not required to report to us as to how many (or which) JC resident students are attending private school,” said Kathleen Rodden-Nord, the district superintendent. “Our estimate is based on when my assistant has called them to inquire about the number.”

The count can also be off because some students whose transfer to an online public charter school was approved by the district are also enrolled in private schools.

According to the Junction City School District, private Schools in the district offering classes within the K-12 band, and their enrollment of district students, include:

  • The Strive Academy (Grades 4-12) – 12
  • Docere Academy of Arts (Grades 7-10) – 11
  • Nature Discovery Christian School (Grades PK-12) – 52

I visited The Strive Academy and Docere Academy of Arts on Jan. 15, 2020 to gather information about their operations.

The Strive Academy

The Strive Academy was hard to find. After driving by the school’s address, 375 Holly Street, several times and seeing no school signs, I figured maybe it had suddenly moved or closed. To find out, I knocked on the door of Martial Arts America, the business at the Holly Street address.

strivedoor

To my surprise, Strive was located inside the business. Outfitted for martial arts training, with striking bags along the wall and a thick mat covering most of the floor, the sole indication of a school in the room was a long table where seven children of varying ages sat with their laptops. The only adults in the room were Ruth Garcia, Strive’s owner and Director, and an assistant. Overall, the scene looked more like a children’s gym/playroom than a school and it was hard to believe much real, intense, creative learning was going on.

striveclassroom

The Strive Academy

Garcia, who has no background in education, said the school serves students in 5th – 12th grade. It has about a dozen students enrolled and a capacity of 15, she said. . All core classes (science, math, social studies and language art) are taken online through Baker Web Academy, which is tuition-free because it is a public online charter school.

For the online classes, Strive says it uses only accredited and approved online schools recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and the United States Department of Education.

CHEA does not, however, “recognize” any online K-12 schools. “We don’t have anything to do with K-12, only post-secondary education,” said Eric G. Selwyn, CHEA’s Membership and Information Administrator. The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t recognize, approve or accredit any online K-12 schools or programs either.

Most of the students now at Strive initially sought approval from the Junction City School District to transfer to Baker Web Academy, Garcia said. Once enrolled at Baker Web, they also enrolled at Strive.

The academic performance of the individual students at Strive is a true mystery, partly because it is not Strive that is grading them, but Baker Web Academy. Furthermore, the Oregon Department of Education discloses performance measures by grade level, not by individual students.

Docere Academy of Arts

Docere Academy of Arts wasn’t that easy to find either. The school gives its address as 530 W 7th Ave, Junction City, but that address is attached to a building identified on a plaque at the entrance as Christ’s Center.

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Entrance to Christ’s Center Church

Learning from my experience with Strive, I walked into the building and asked if they knew anything about Docere.  It turned out the church building was a former elementary school and Docere was in a classroom down one of the hallways.

Like Strive, Docere operates in one large room, though Docere’s space is furnished and pleasantly decorated like a traditional classroom setting.

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A student at the Docere Academy of Arts

Docere embraces John F. Kennedy’s view that, “This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.”

“…my hope and vision is to see a school for girls that starts with the Bible as our foundation for all subjects and to inspire a love for learning and discovering God’s truths through academia and the arts,” the school’s Director and instructor,  Jaymie Starr, says in a standard letter to prospective families and students.

Starr said the school currently serves 11 girls in grades 7-10. As with Strive, all core classes are offered only online, with most students registered at Baker Web Academy and a few with the Junction City School District’s online program, JC Online.

There are two people on Docere’s staff according to its website, Jaymie Starr (also identified as Barbara J. Starr in other records) and her husband, Jeffery Starr.

The website says Jaymie holds an Associate’s of Biblical Studies degree from University of the Nations, which is not accredited by any recognized accreditation body. “The goal of the U of N is to teach students how to apply biblical truth practically and to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20),” The university’s website says.

Jaymie completed a year of teacher training from U of N through their satellite campus in Tyler, TX.  The program, Teachers For The Nations (TFN), says it teaches how to “train the student to prepare and present Biblically-based lesson plans for every subject in the curriculum.”

According to Docere’s website, Jaymie’s husband, Jeffery Starr, is a Youth Pastor at Christ’s Center Church. He also works as a middle school track and cross country coach at Junction City’s Oaklea Middle School. “I love Jesus, my family and coffee!,” he says on his Facebook page.

Although Docere’s classroom setting is superior to Strive’s, the academic performance of the individual students at Docere  is just as much a mystery. Baker Web Academy is grading them, not Docere, and the Oregon Department of Education discloses performance measures only by grade level, not by individual students.

Then there’s the money

One thing all the alternative schooling arrangements have in common is that somebody is making money.

At Docere, Strive and other private schools that access online coursework through public charter schools, the online classes may be free, but all the private schools have additional charges.

At Strive, all new students pay a $149 processing fee that also covers a martial arts uniform. Then there is a $99 a month charge for a required martial arts class twice a week. In addition, tuition is $300 a month, which covers field trips and instruction in things such as robotics, music, art and first aid. That translates into $3740 for a school year for a new student.

If the school was operating at capacity, it would generate $56,100 of revenue over a 9-month school year. “You’re paying for a safe place, a safe environment,” Garcia said.

At Docere, there’s a registration fee of $100 and a monthly tuition fee of $275 per student with a $50/month sibling discount. The tuition is expected to cover the majority of costs for everything from weekly science labs, dance workshops, and art classes to cooking classes and field trips. Tuition also covers the school’s rent, activity costs, salary for the school director, payments to other teachers, tutor costs, substitutes, supplies, copies and wifi. That translates into $2,575 for a school year for a new student.

With 11 students, the school is generating $28,325 of revenue over a 9-month school year.

The big money, however, isn’t being made by the private schools.  It’s being made by the online public charter schools that provide the coursework.

These schools aren’t collecting tuition from their students. Instead, the mostly poorly performing online schools  are being supported with money diverted from the state’s brick-and-mortar public schools. The Oregon Department of Education distributes State School Fund money to each school district that sponsors a charter school; the district then passes on most of that money to the charter school.

 The Santiam Canyon School District sponsors Oregon Connections Academy, which had the largest enrollment of 3,886 students on Oct. 1, 2019. The State School Fund gave the district $30,419,216.36 for the 2018-19 school year to support that sponsorship.

Oregon law provides that a sponsoring district must pass on to its charter school at least 80 percent of its per-pupil grant for K-8 students and 95 percent of its per pupil grant for grade 9-12 students.

The Santiam Canyon School District chose to retain 1% ($304,192.16) of the State School Fund money it received and then to charge Oregon Connections Academy 3.5% ($1,054,025.85) of the balance as a management fee for the provision of services for the 2018-19 school year. That translated to $1,358,218.01 in revenue to the Santiam Canyon School District and $29,060,998.35 in revenue to Oregon Connections Academy.

Distributions to all the Oregon school districts sponsoring online public charter schools that year are shown below:

County District sponsor Charter school SSF $ rec’d
Linn Santiam Canyon SD 129J Oregon Connections Academy  $  30,419,216.36
Coos North Bend SD 13 Oregon Virtual Academy  $  14,510,307.99
Baker Baker SD 5J Baker Web Academy  $  14,147,825.08
Clackamas Estacada SD 108 Summit Learning Charter  $    8,616,826.86
Wheeler Fossil SD 21J Fossil Charter School  $    5,856,698.56
Multnomah Gresham-Barlow SD 10J Metro East Web Academy  $    4,047,657.29
Clackamas North Clackamas SD 12 Clackamas Web Academy  $    3,511,076.97
Wheeler Mitchell SD 55 Cascade Virtual Academy; Destinations Career Academy of Oregon; Insight School of Oregon-Painted Hills  $    3,409,914.44
Harney Frenchglen SD 16 Silvies River Charter School  $    3,367,207.13
Marion Gervais SD 1 Frontier Charter Academy  $    2,350,696.75
Lane Marcola SD 79J TEACH-NW  $    2,348,684.27
Jackson Eagle Point SD 9 Crater Lake Academy  $    2,256,338.83
Harney Harney County SD 4 Oregon Family School  $    2,032,711.22
Lake Paisley SD 11 Paisley Charter School  $    1,618,021.06
Yamhill Sheridan SD 48J Sheridan All Prep  $    1,047,705.30
Lane Fern Ridge SD 28J West Lane Technology Learning Center  $        579,874.37
Linn Scio SD 95 Oregon Virtual Education  $        232,202.48

Source: Oregon Department of Education

     Oregon’s State School Fund sent $100,352,964.96 to school districts sponsoring online public charter schools for the 2018-2019 school year.

All that money for a mostly substandard education and mediocre results.

Some State School Fund money may also be leaking back to the parents of the online students in the form of cash, debit cards or school-controlled accounts that students and their families are supposed to use for school-related purposes.

In a late 2019 posting to the Junction City School District’s districts website, Rodden-Nord  alleged that some online public charter schools are using State School Fund money to give their students “stipends”  that ranged from $900 per student to at least $2000 per student. “A handful of Junction City families seeking a release from our district to attend a virtual charter program have expressed that they do not want to do JC Online (the district’s online program) because we do not provide such a stipend and they need it, or want it,”  Rodden-Nord said.

The TEACH-NW website confirms that annual so-called “allotments” will be made to students in the 2019-2020 school year as follows, with amounts allocated based on initial enrollment quarter:

According to Phillip Johnson, the Director at TEACH-NW,  allotments can be used to cover academic materials such as textbooks, school supplies, curriculum materials, approved instructional programs (i.e. music, dance), enrichment experiences, educational subscriptions, educational fees, tutoring services, some athletics fees and equipment, field trips, and internet expenses as approved by the student’s Educational Facilitator (assigned teacher).

“All expenditures are closely monitored (daily) by our account supervisor,” Johnson said. “Families do have access to a program issued debit card which is under the direct control of our program (activation, deactivation, loading). We also process reimbursements for those families who prefer to not use their debit card. All expenditures must be directly linked to the student’s Individual Learning Plan (ILP) which is aligned to state standards.  Failure to maintain program compliance results in allotment suspension.”

Amber Jallo, Enrollment Manager at the Fossil Distance Learning Program, said her school also supplies funds to families. “We supply $1500 of ed funds,” she said. “This breaks down to be $750 per semester. These funds can be spent on curriculum, field trips and enrichment.”

Jim Smith, Superintendent of the Fossil School District, added,  “We provide educational funds to purchase curriculum and instruction.  All purchases must meet all requirements provided in our policies. Our students can currently use these funds for curriculum, educational supplies, tutoring, instruction, and field trips.”

Daniel Huld, Superintendent of Baker Charter Schools, said they don’t provide students with any such stipends.

Even if online public charter schools do give some of their State School Fund money to students or their families, they may not be breaking any rules if the funds are intended to be used for school-related expenses.  “To our understanding there is nothing that explicitly prohibits this in the charter school statutes, or in state law that speaks specifically to this issue,” said Jenni Knaus, a Communications Specialist at the Oregon Department of Education.

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I get it that the alternative education choices reflect a lack of confidence in traditional educational institutions. However, despite the almost messianic belief in alternative schooling held by many supporters, it’s clear from the facts on the ground that they have not found the promised land.

A close look reveals a brutal truth — there are major flaws in many of the alternative options being chosen by Oregon parents and the damage being inflicted on their children could be severe.

All Oregonians, particularly the legislature and governor, should care because education is not just a private good.  Studied indifference or washing our hands of the consequences of educational malfeasance can have serious consequences for the community at large.

As Chester Finn Jr., Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, put it, “Once you conclude that education is also a public good—one whose results bear powerfully on our prosperity, our safety, our culture, our governance, and our civic life—you have to recognize that voters and taxpayers have a compelling interest in whether kids are learning what they should…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is TriMet “riding the winds of change”? Not really.

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Think TriMet’s New Electric Buses Run on Wind Power? Think Again.

By Rachel Dawson

TriMet unveiled five new battery-electric buses (BEBs) in April 2019, the sides of which all donned images of windmills and sweeping gusts of wind. The BEBs each cost around $1 million, nearly twice as much as a traditional diesel bus. And these buses are just the beginning: The TriMet board voted last year to replace the entire fleet with battery-electric buses for $1.18 billion by 2040, a $500 million premium over a diesel fleet.

TriMet has been hailed an environmental hero for “riding the winds of change.” TriMet Spokesperson Roberta Altstadt claimed that TriMet was the first in the United States to “operate an electric bus on 100% renewable energy.” Without further research, it would be easy to think that TriMet’s new buses ran on clean wind energy. And that is exactlywhat TriMet is hoping you would think. But you would be wrong.

If the buses don’t run on 100% wind power, how is TriMet able to get away with saying they do?

TriMet spends $228.75 per month on what are known as renewable energy certificates (RECs) from PGE. RECs are a tradable commodity sold by renewable energy facilities (such as wind farms) to the wholesale market, that purport to represent the “environmental amenities” of certain renewable energy projects. By purchasing the RECs, TriMet has bought the legal right to claim it is using renewable energy; however, the agency has not purchased any energy itself.

This would be like my paying someone else to exercise at the gym for me, and then telling my family and friends I go to the gym. The person I pay reaps both financial and physical benefits while I merely get to pretend I have them.

Supporters of RECs claim the certificates offset fossil fuels and pay for the generation of new renewable energy. However, these claims are not entirely accurate. According to Daniel Press, a Professor of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz, “RECs do little to reduce emissions in the real world because they have become too cheap to shift energy markets or incentivize businesses to build new turbines.” The income generated from RECs does not come close to the millions needed to construct more wind turbines, which means that RECs themselves don’t offset fossil fuels.

Despite its claims, it would be impossible for TriMet to run on 100% wind power unless it disconnected from the regional mixed grid and hooked up to its own personal wind farm. Even then, TriMet would be forced to rely on other backup power sources due to the volatility of wind generation.

While a wind turbine may be available to produce energy around 90% of the time, the average wind farm in the United States in 2018 had a capacity factor of only 37.4%. The capacity factor refers to the amount of energy produced in a year as a fraction of the farm’s maximum capacity. Wind farms produce electricity when winds reach about nine miles per hour and stop at roughly 55 mph to prevent equipment damage. If the wind isn’t blowing (or isn’t blowing strongly enough), little to no power can be generated.

This poses problems, as the electrical grid requires constant equilibrium or blackouts will result—power supply must meet energy demand. Every megawatt of wind power has to be backed up by an equal amount of traditional, “non-green” sources like coal and natural gas to account for times when wind energy isn’t generated. This would be like keeping a car constantly running at home in case the one you’re driving on the road fails.

Instead of a wind farm, TriMet receives its electricity from Portland General Electric, the same mixed grid your home is likely powered by. In 2020, this mixed grid will be made up of 37% natural gas, 28% coal, 18% hydro, 15% renewables, and 2% purchased power (power purchased on the wholesale market). Since wind only makes up a portion of renewables used by PGE, less than 15% of the electricity used by the “wind” buses is powered by wind. A greater percentage of the electricity used by TriMet’s BEBs comes from coal plants than wind farms.

If TriMet were honest with its riders, it would replace the windmills on the sides of the new buses with coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric power plants. In the name of accuracy, TriMet could place a windmill in the corner, demonstrating the small percentage of power generated by wind farms.

So instead of riding the “winds of change,” keep in mind that you’re just riding a really expensive bus.

Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

 

Hijacking Oregon Justice

 

Kate Brown

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown

Former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick was hired by  Gov. Kate Brown’s Oregon Department of Justice in June 2018 as a Special Assistant Attorney General (SAAG).

Sounds simple and straightforward. It’s not.

It’s just plan wrong and Brown and her Attorney General, Ellen Rosenblum, shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.

Oregon’s Cascade Policy Institute is pointing out that Novick’s entire salary is being paid by an out-of-state private source, New York University’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center, which is backed by Bloomberg Philanthropies. The Center is covering Novick’s legal fellowship with the aim of strengthening state attorney general offices in their crusade against the Trump administration’s environmental policies.

The unprecedented practice of providing external funding to state attorneys general to push a policy agenda ought to raise ethical concerns, the Cascade Policy Institute asserts, and justifiably so. As attorney Andrew Grossman put it: “What you’re talking about is law enforcement for hire….Really, what’s being done is circumventing our normal mode of government.”

In August 2018, Competitive Enterprise Institute published a report by Christopher Horner which details the roots and function of the SAAG program. Law Enforcement for Rent: How Special Interests Fund Climate Policy through State Attorneys General describes the genesis of the SAAG program as an informal coalition between states, spearheaded by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

According to Justus Armstrong, a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, a letter included in the report’s appendix from Schneiderman and Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell to Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum shows she was invited to a March 2016 meeting of this coalition. The letter describes the program as “an important part of the national effort to ensure the adoption of stronger federal climate and energy policies.” Correspondence between members of the coalition (also compiled by Horner) expresses a desire to collaborate on targeting companies in the energy industry with regulatory and enforcement tools.

This same environmental policy agenda drives NYU’s Center, as expressed in its communication with state attorneys general. Emails state that the “opportunity to potentially hire an NYU Fellow is open to all state attorneys general who demonstrate a need and commitment to defending environmental values and advancing progressive clean energy, climate change, and environmental legal positions.” NYU’s website directs interested attorneys general to demonstrate a need for outside funding to pursue these legal positions.

If this sounds questionable, imagine a similar practice being used to serve other political agendas. If a nonprofit backed by Charles and David Koch offered to fund a position in a state to provide legal assistance on regulatory matters, would it be considered a conflict of interest? If the National Rifle Association were bankrolling state employees to serve as a “resource” on gun law enforcement, would it raise red flags? This isn’t simply about protecting the environment versus not. It’s a question of impropriety and corruption. NYU states in its agreements that fellows owe their loyalty solely to the state attorney general once they’re assigned there, but SAAGs like Novick are still being paid by an outside source while working on behalf of the state.

According to the Associated Press, Oregon deputy legislative counsel Marisa James said in a Sept. 11, 2018 legal analysis that the fellowship program violates state law because special assistant attorney general Steve Novick is paid by an entity other than the state and reports to the center and the attorney general.

“We conclude that some aspects of Mr. Novick’s appointment conflict with the Attorney General’s authority to appoint assistants under ORS 180.140,” Ms. Jacobs said in a letter obtained by The Washington Free Beacon.

Oregon Deputy Attorney General Frederick Boss disagreed, arguing in a Sept. 24, 2018 letter that the arrangement is “consistent with many longstanding SAAG appointments in areas like tobacco enforcement, bond issuance, and complex health care transactions.”

It appears that Rosenblum was anxious about the ethical gray areas of this arrangement from the start. Emails from within the DOJ show that Rosenblum instructed the DOJ not to use the word “volunteer” to describe Novick’s position in his hiring paperwork. The obfuscating language of the hiring process is notable: In reality, Novick isn’t working as a “volunteer” or a “research fellow,” but as an environmental lawyer, as he has been for years. Rosenblum also showed apprehension about the potential media attention the unprecedented arrangement could draw, as one email states:

“We need to be sure we are prepared to explain his position to the media, who, no doubt, will be interested. (Because he is being paid by an outside entity—which is quite unusual I think)….”

As Armstrong notes, Novick’s position is quite unusual indeed, and Oregonians deserve an explanation. Regardless of one’s views on Novick, Rosenblum, or Bloomberg’s environmental policy agenda, embedding privately funded legal counsel in our justice department is a conflict of interest. The Attorney General’s office should be loyal to Oregon citizens, not out-of-state donors, and should uphold the law rather than push a legislative agenda.

 

 

 

Gov. Brown’s Hiring Freeze: Too Little, Too Late

brownhandsraised

Finally.

More than two months after Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day called for a hiring freeze in Oregon’s public sector, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has signed an executive order imposing a hiring freeze.

But it will only last until June 30 of this year. Too little. Too late.

In deciding on a hiring freeze, Brown’s no bold innovator. She’s following what more responsible states and businesses have done before.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, in an effort to strengthen state finances, imposed a state hiring freeze last year that whittled 1,161 employees from the payroll.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose state missed revenue forecasts last fiscal year and is forecasting a miss again because of declines in farm income, also put on a hiring freeze for state employees. “As Nebraskans, we don’t spend money we don’t have,” Ricketts said.

Businessess pull back when they face financial challenges, too.

Macy’s, faced with unfavorable earnings, decided to shut down 68 stores and cut more than 10,000 jobs.

In December 2011, then Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was also facing budget troubles, ordered a hiring freeze. But when Gov. Brown released her recommended budget for 2017-19, she chose not to do the same.

In fact, with Oregon facing a $1.6 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium, buried in the Governor’s initial budget was a proposal to actually increase the state government workforce from 38,737 in 2015-17 to 39,412 in 2017-19. That’s an increase of 675 full-time equivalent employees.

“Using the cost information from the Legislative Fiscal Office, this 1.7 percent increase would cost the state more than $120 million in compensation costs for the 2017-19 biennium,” according to Facing Reality, a Cascade Policy Institute report.

“A prudent step of a hiring freeze would free up resources and ward off some of the pressure to increase taxes, fees, and charges,” the report said.

An ever-expanding state is not sustainable without ever-increasing taxation.   If Oregon is to responsibly manage its finances, an across-the-board rigorously enforced hiring freeze, with stringent requirements for exceptions and restrictions on hiring contractors, should be imposed for the entire next biennium.

Surely the governor and Legislature, with a state workforce that’s already at 38,737, can find ways to meet the state’s needs by adjusting the workload and assignments of that workforce.

Take a leap folks. Do the right thing.

 

 

Now more than ever, Oregon needs a hiring freeze

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Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, of John Day, has called for a hiring freeze in Oregon’s public sector, saying it will ignite economic growth.

“A hiring freeze in the public sector will ignite growth in the private sector that has been suffering under the rapid growth of government,” said Ferrioli. “We should not be artificially growing government at the cost of the Oregon worker and their loved ones. Grandpa always said when you find yourself in a hole, quit digging.”

The State of Oregon Employment Department data shows that government has had an explosive growth in jobs that has not been matched by growth in the private sector, which is the engine of the economy.

Additionally, the Taxpayer Association says that Oregon out-spends 39 other states and that our state budget grows twice as fast as population and inflation rates combined. State employees make almost double what average working Oregonians make, earning on average $89,000 compared to $45,893.

Whats worse, 35 years of double-digit growth has produced big scandals and billions in preventable mistakes.

“We must end the era of government gone wild.”

Ferrioli has it right.

Most states, when they confront financial hard times, put a hold on hiring.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, in an effort to strengthen state finances, imposed a state hiring freeze last year that whittled 1,161 employees from the payroll.

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose state missed revenue forecasts last fiscal year and is forecasting a miss again because of declines in farm income, also put on a hiring freeze for state employees. “As Nebraskans, we don’t spend money we don’t have,” Ricketts said.

 Businessess pull back when they face financial challenges, too.

Macy’s, faced with unfavorable earnings, decided to shut down 68 stores and cut more than 10,000 jobs.

Dow Jones & Co., like many news organizations that have been letting people go in the face of declining revenue, is planning to lay off dozens of reporters and editors at the Wall Street Journal because of persistent drops in print advertising income. The news and information business of News Corp, which publishes the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers, reported a 7% decline in revenue in the 4th quarter of 2016.

In December 2011, then Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was also facing budget troubles, ordered a hiring freeze. But when Gov. Brown released her recommended budget for 2017-19, she chose not to do the same.

In fact, with Oregon facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall in the 2017-19 biennium, buried in the Governor’s Budget is a proposal to actually increase the state government workforce from 38,737 in 2015-17 to 39,412 in 2017-19. That’s an increase of 675 full-time equivalent employees.

“Using the cost information from the Legislative Fiscal Office, this 1.7 percent increase would cost the state more than $120 million in compensation costs for the 2017-19 biennium,” according to Facing Reality, a Cascade Policy Institute report offering alternative budget proposals. “A prudent step of a hiring freeze would free up resources and ward off some of the pressure to increase taxes, fees, and charges,” the report said.

An ever-expanding state is not sustainable without ever-increasing taxation.   If Oregon is to responsibly manage its finances, an across-the-board rigorously enforced hiring freeze, with stringent requirements for exceptions and restrictions on hiring contractors, should be instituted NOW.

Then the size of the state workforce should be held down by careful pruning of ineffective and bloated programs and the hiring freeze should be continued in the 2017-2019 budget, which would encourage state agencies to optimize the staff they have.

Surely the governor and Legislature, with a state workforce of 38,737, can find ways to meet the state’s needs by adjusting the workload and assignments of that workforce.

In the end, the state and taxpayers will be better off for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coming to Portland’s book burning party?

bookburning
The Portland (Oregon) Public School board recently voted to prohibit textbooks or classroom materials questioning the mainstream thinking about climate change. The Cascade Policy Institute’s comments on the action, reprinted here, deserve attention.
 
“Resolution No. 5272 is two pages long, but the most chilling part is the final sentence:
 
‘[Portland Public Schools] will abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.’
 
The primary purpose of education is to teach students how to be critical thinkers. Now that the School Board has declared that expressions of doubt about complex scientific topics will be banned, what is the point of going to school?
 
Regardless of the subject we should encourage students to be skeptical. The more questioning the better. They will be poorly prepared for adult living if they spend their childhood years being spoon-fed in schools where skepticism is prohibited.
 
Public education already faces a growing challenge from private schools, online learning, and home-based education. If Resolution 5272 is upheld, Portland Public Schools will give parents one more reason to leave.”

The VA and Portland’s road fee: two peas in a pod

More money. That’s the answer, says government. More money.

Portland has a problem with maintenance of its roads. So government does what government does best, it proposes spending more money. The city has “no alternative”, said Mayor Charlie Hales but to impose new street user fees on households, apartment complex owners, businesses and government agencies, including school districts.

The city claims it needs the extra money because revenue has been declining. But John A. Charles, Jr., President and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, took a closer look . Charles discovered that the city’s transportation revenue has actually been growing steadily and the city’s general fund has been flush. He concluded that it’s not a lack of money, but choices on spending priorities that has put the city in its current situation with road maintenance.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, D.C., a political debate is raging about what to do with the Veterans Administration, and more money seems to be the easy answer there, too.

department-of-veterans-affairs-lincoln-plaque

Democrats are already saying the solution to the VA’s problems is more money. At the same time they are attacking Republicans for opposing a VA bill earlier this year that would have addressed the crisis with more spending.

And Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, has reintroduced a bill to reform the VA that copies the free-spending elements of a similar bill defeated in the Senate earlier this year,  including a provision that would open 27 costly new VA medical centers across the US and in Puerto Rico.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)

But more money isn’t going to solve the VA’s problems.

A May 28, 2014 report on problems at the VA’s Phoenix, AZ Health Care System noted, for example, that while conducting its work in Phoenix, the staff and Hotline of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) “received numerous allegations daily of mismanagement, inappropriate hiring decisions, sexual harassment, and bullying behavior by mid- and senior-level managers at this facility.”

The issues with excessive patient wait times identified in current allegations are also hardly new. The May 2014 report noted that since 2005, the VA OIG has issued 18 reports that identified, at both the national and local levels, deficiencies in scheduling resulting in lengthy waiting times and the negative impact on patient care. Each of the reports listed was issued to the VA Secretary and the Congress and is publicly available on the VA OIG website.

When the Senate failed to pass Sanders bill earlier this year it was principally because of Republican opposition, with Sanders’ cynically saying he hoped opponents would have the courage to face the vets they were depriving of care.

Other Democrats tried to position the party, which rarely sees a new spending bill it doesn’t like, as the pure for-the-good-of-the-people arm of the government, by raising the old “don’t play politics” argument. “Can we put politics aside for the good of our nation’s veterans?” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “Can we show these heroes that – despite our differences – we will work as diligently toward getting them the benefits and care they’ve earned as they have worked for our nation?”

The problem is Sanders’ bill would have cost $21 billion dollars by vastly expanding existing programs and adding new ones, when the VA budget has already been growing like topsy.

The VA, with 151 hospitals and 821 clinics, already has an annual budget that’s more than double what it was a decade ago.

According to the Office of Management and Budget, the VA budget increased in real terms from $45 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $150.7 billion in fiscal year 2014 and President Obama’s 2015 budget for the VA proposes an increase to $163.9 billion.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is already going the class warfare route in urging even more spending.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV)

On Monday he blasted Republicans for favoring tax cuts for the wealthy over the health of vets and spending for the war in Iraq on “America’s credit card”  but not being willing to pay for the medical care of vets. All senators should support the Sanders bill regardless of its cost, he said.

With the country already facing more than $17 trillion in national debt and with annual deficits continuing to contribute to that debt, adding more debt just plain makes no sense, even if it is to serve honored veterans.

Equally, adding more veterans services and vastly expanding the pool of veterans eligible for VA services makes no sense when the VA is apparently incapable of professionally providing its services now to its existing caseload.

It would make more sense for Congress to restrain the growth of its potential clients, facilitate a shift of veterans with service-connected disabilities who don’t require specialized VA care to medical services outside the VA system, and address the serious cultural problems that have led to a dysfunctional VA bureaucracy and interminable waiting times for vets deserving of our nation’s care.

In addition, Congress owes it to our heavily indebted country to pay for any additional costs that may be incurred in connection with VA reform with real money. That would require hard choices on budget priorities. Sanders’ February bill proposed that the additional spending be paid for with overseas contingency operations funds used to fund the war in Afghanistan. His new bill would also place caps on overseas contingency operations funds . That money isn’t real savings because it wouldn’t have been spent anyway with U.S. Afghanistan operations winding down.

So watch closely as Congress tries to get out in front of the VA mess. There’s reason to be worried. As Will Rogers said, “This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when a baby gets hold of a hammer.”