Mission Education: Oregon dives into reform

Mission Education: Oregon dives into reform »Play Video
Tim Nesbitt, project manager for the Oregon Investment Project, appears on KATU's "Your Voice, Your Vote" Sunday. He says Gov. John Kitzhaber's vision for education in Oregon will help the state improve its graduation rate. (Click the "Play Video" button to watch the entire show)

PORTLAND, Ore. - During Gov. John Kitzhaber’s State of the State speech at the Portland City Club last month, he made it clear that one of his top priorities to tackle during this month’s fast-paced legislative session was education reform.

And, in fact, since taking the oath of office in January 2011 for the third time as governor of Oregon, Kitzhaber, a Democrat, has made education reform a central mission for his administration and the state.

During last year’s legislative session, lawmakers approved his flagship proposal, the Oregon Education Investment Board. That board, consisting of 12 members and led by the governor, is tasked with unifying the state’s education system from early childhood to college and has worked on reforms that are now in front of lawmakers.

Kitzhaber’s goals are ambitious. He wants the state to have a 100 percent high school graduation rate by 2025. Right now, the state has an average graduation rate of about 65 percent. Tim Nesbitt, the project manager for the Oregon Investment Project in the governor’s office, told KATU’s Steve Dunn Sunday during “Your Voice, Your Vote” that it is imperative the state meet that goal.

“We have to find ways to get there,” he said. “There’s a lot to learn from schools that are doing well” in the state, he said, pointing to the Tigard-Tualatin School District that he said has a graduation rate of over 82 percent. He said the demographics in that district are similar to other districts in the state. The idea, then, is to apply, in a coordinated effort, what’s working in successful districts to those struggling.

Two bills before legislators this session are House Bill 4165 and Senate Bill 1581. The House bill is aimed at improving early childhood education and the Senate bill looks to establish “achievement compacts.”

A key component of the governor’s strategy to boost student graduation rates and student achievements is to make sure they are ready to learn when they first enter the public school system as kindergarteners.

“For the first time we have the opportunity to do something profoundly important about it,” Kitzhaber said during his State of the State speech. “All the research demonstrates that children who are ready to learn at kindergarten, who are ready to read in the first grade and who are reading at level by the third grade, are much more likely to graduate from high school and find social and economic success.”

The governor believes, however, the state needs to be set free from the rigid constraints of the federal No Child Left Behind Act to be able to fully realize those goals. Last month, the state submitted its request to the Obama administration asking it to exempt the state from the law.

Nesbitt told Dunn that one of the problems with No Child Left Behind is that it doesn’t track the progress students make over time and “as it got closer to its absolute benchmarks, more and more schools found that they weren’t getting credit for what was working.”

For example, he said Roosevelt High School in Portland improved its graduation rate but still was unable to meet No Child Left Behind’s standards. So, it will be labeled a failing school and will be forced to shift resources away from what helped it get that better graduation rate, he said.

Not everyone is onboard with the governor’s ideas, however. Some Republicans expressed concern last legislative session and during an Education Investment Board member appointment hearing last fall that the governor’s plans would take control away from local school boards and circumvent the power of the Legislature.

Representatives of the governor have said that both of those things are not the goals of his proposals. But since the state does provide most of the funding for schools, it needs an efficient way to target that funding.

“The investment that (the state) makes in education … will be focused on the most significant outcomes, including that graduation rate we just talked about, and leaving districts as free as possible … to do their best and work with their teachers, their parents and their communities to achieve those goals,” Nesbitt said.

Steve Buckstein, with the Cascade Policy Institute, said during a panel discussion during the second segment of “Your Voice, Your Vote” that what the governor is trying now is similar to what he tried in the early 1990s as Oregon Senate president, and it failed.

“I see more of the same,” he said. “Except I think that the lesson that was learned was it wasn’t big enough. That was only K-12, so let’s go to pre-K for 20 years thinking that somehow that will be better.”

Samuel Henry, a member of the Oregon Education Investment Board, said during the same panel discussion that there are differences this time around. But he said the passage of Measure 5 in the 1990s “moved people away from their school and away from the policymaking pieces that they needed to participate in.”

Buckstein countered that the wrong people are being engaged with Kitzhaber’s legislation. He said it is a move away from parents and students.

“The system is accountable to the Legislature, to the governor and now it’s accountable to 12 very smart people, the Oregon Education Investment Board, but they’re not smart enough to replace the decisions of every parent and child in the state,” he said.

Instead of control moving up to the state, Buckstein said he wants to see it move down to parents and children.

“The way you do that is to let the parents and children take their dollars, whatever dollars are available from the state … and let them take at least part of that and vote with their dollars,” he said.

In essence, parents can choose where their children go to school if they’re not happy with the school their children attend.

Sena Norton, a sixth-grade teacher and member of the Oregon Education Association, said during the panel that such a system ignores the real issue.

“Every child in Oregon deserves a great public school,” she said. “And moving the issue around is still not addressing what is happening in my classroom.”

She said the system needs to deal with the “whole child” no matter where they go to school.

To concerns that teachers, parents and students will be left out of the decision-making process, Henry said that’s one of the things the Oregon Education Investment Board will seek out.

“There are substantive conversations that are going to happen in every district and with all the major points about what we need to do,” he said.

Watch past "Your Voice, Your Vote" shows and other politics videos