Let us assume their declared objective was good: to reduce the youth suicide rate, which in Oregon is higher than the national average. Given that suicide is the second leading cause of death for Oregonians aged 10 to 34, it is reasonable to assume that a toxic school environment contributes to this societal malady.
Bullying is a malignant force linked to suicides in schools across the land. News stories about the Oregon students’ advocacy of mental health days off reported terribly sad accounts of student suicides. For instance, a Eugene teen aspiring to become a surgeon took her own life because she was bullied after coming out as bisexual.
Stop, though, and consider this: If a child takes a day off to evade a persistent bully, it is likely the bully will lie in wait upon the student’s return and perhaps be even more hateful. If the child suffers from a mental illness such as schizophrenia or severe depressive disorder, an excused absence of a day or two is not going to solve the problem, either. Instead, clinical care might be in order.
So when a toxic school environment is putting students under great stress, disrupting their ability to concentrate on their studies, and even inducing suicidal thoughts, the solution lies not in mental health days but in mental health school transfers. That means parents and students being able to choose safe schools or to fashion their own educational alternatives.
School choice is the cause for which these Oregon student activists should apply their energy and persuasive skills. Their home state has abundant natural beauty but is a desert when it comes to empowering families to choose schools outside the realm of stultifying governmental control.
Although a majority of states now have tax-credit scholarship, voucher, individual tax credit, or education savings account programs — or a combination of such avenues to private choice — Oregon offers none of the above. Charter schools, featuring a modicum of autonomy within the governmental system, offer the only sliver of school choice in the Beaver State. But even the state’s charter-authorizing law is weak tea.
An education savings account (ESA) could be of particular help to Oregon students and parents worried about threats to physical and mental well-being at their assigned government school. By being able to draw from their child’s share of public funding, parents could enroll their child in a safe private school attuned to individual needs, tap into online learning available from the safety of home, hire private tutors, or even find therapeutic services to overcome trauma experienced at the previous school.
Pursuant to the sound principle that families should not have to face bureaucratic foot-dragging when a child’s life is in peril, my colleagues at The Heartland Institute have developed a template for Child Safety Accounts, which builds upon the ESA model to enable parents to obtain immediate and lasting help for an endangered child. It is a thoughtful plan.
An ESA proposal has gone regularly before the Oregon legislature since 2014. Each time, it has gotten short shrift. Students dedicated to de-traumatizing education and saving lives could make a difference by convincing a majority of their elected representatives to give educational freedom a chance.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.