Gov. John Kitzhaber's sweeping notion to reshape Oregon's multi-layered public education system into a single education department covering preschool to graduate school is what we wanted from this governor: bold leadership and novel ideas, without fear of having to please everyone to get re-elected.
Kitzhaber proposes replacing the multiple silos of public education with a single, 13-person education investment board that the governor would appoint and lead. Kitzhaber argues that Oregon's current public education system wrongly rewards school districts, community colleges and state universities more for how many students they enroll, not how well students are taught or how many graduate.
'We're simply not getting the results we need,' Kitzhaber said last week as he unveiled his plan to the Legislature.
The latest attempt at education reform comes at a time when the state has too few dollars for all essential services, including schools. Kitzhaber's education plan also coincides with a growing consensus in this state that Oregon's economic and social future is tied to great schools. With those issues in mind, we think everyone can agree that Oregon needs to change how it administers public education.
But specifically, just how will the governor's plan work and what assurances do we have that it will be successful?
Many issues to address
We are not fully ready to say Kitzhaber's proposal for a single education system is the answer. Certainly, it would be helpful to cut through the entrenched bureaucratic silos involved with education - from K-12 schools to the state Department of Education to the college and university system. But creating an uber-education entity may be a bridge too far.
We think the Legislature and public must require assurances about how this new system will work. The governor must identify how it will be funded and how student learning, achievement and graduation rates will be enhanced and measured. The idea also needs to detail strategies the governor would employ to improve how we teach Oregonians of all ages.
Before a complete evaluation of Kitzhaber's proposal is possible, here is an initial list of questions to explore:
• What specific ways will this revamped education system reduce costs?
• How will classroom teaching, testing and graduation rates be measurably improved, and what is the timeline for this change to occur?
• How will pre-K social services and education, as well as elementary, middle and high schools, be better linked? How will K-12 schooling more successfully propel young Oregonians forward to jobs, community colleges and universities?
• How will teacher performance be measured and enhanced? Right now, we see that most teachers really do try to achieve better results, but for a variety of reasons - including large class sizes, student language barriers and uneven assistance - learning can suffer from classroom to classroom. Plus, the current system of judging teacher or school performance based on standardized tests is mostly meaningless.
• Who - in addition to the governor - will measure results of this education and investment board?
• How can we be assured that this board will not be a fad idea of but one governor in a very dire time, but an ongoing structure for leadership and investment in education? Along the same lines, how will the appointment and efforts of the new education investment board be free of political influence and the winds of political change as one party or another takes control of the governor's office or the Legislature?
The children of Oregon - or residents of any age attending school - should never be pawns or victims of the political process.
We applaud Kitzhaber's leadership and call for educational improvement. In the ensuing weeks, the governor and all of those invested in public education should fully explore, evaluate and shape the specifics of this proposal before acting on it in Salem.