Cole joins state education reform effort

Tom Cole, executive director of Medford's Kids Unlimited, was named last week to an investment team aimed at laying the foundation for potentially sweeping reform in Oregon's education systems.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, who established the 13-member Oregon Education Investment Team through an executive order on Feb. 11, said diversity of expertise and perspective directed his consideration as he filled the seats.

"I am proud to be a part of it," Cole said. "The stakes are high and the tasks at hand are huge, but I'm excited by the challenges and optimistic."

The investment team was formed to submit a model report, due May 31, for the potential inception of an Oregon Education Investment Board, which, if approved by the state Legislature, would be established by the end of 2012, control 51 percent of the state's general fund, and replace the Oregon Board of Education and State Board of Higher Education.

Cole, who founded and built Kids Unlimited into the Rogue Valley's premier youth enrichment center over the past decade, credited most of the reason for his selection to the success of the local organization.

"I think my selection to the team is a reflection of what Kids Unlimited has been able to accomplish in terms of advocating for kids in our community," he said. "That part of it really makes me proud."

Kitzhaber, who will chair the investment team and would chair the succeeding board, said the board will oversee education from birth until age 20 for children in Oregon, instead of coming in at the kindergarten level, and focus on creating a "seamless" transition between all phases of education.

On the investment team, Cole will join representatives from K-12, higher education, the private sector, research development, and one representative from the Oregon Education Association.

"The assembly of the team shows that they are willing to listen to groups that may traditionally not have been at the table, which for me was encouraging," Cole said. "I hope to bring a different perspective and a voice of advocacy for families and kids not only in Southern Oregon ... but of the kids and families that are often neglected around the state."

Cole said he is enthusiastic about Kitzhaber' approach to early childhood education, and wants the team to focus on how to establish and preserve long-term, adequate funding for all of Oregon's students.

"At a time when we have limited resources, we have to figure out the best way to preserve the resources that are allocated for these students to be successful," said Cole. "I think our current system does not allow for the greatest amount of dollars to impact the students."

As optimistic Cole is about the opportunity to have a voice in Salem, he knows that devising framework for the investment board, and finding common ground with the many different interests involved in the state's education systems will not be easy.

"We have to be willing to listen to not only those who have been branded as experts, and those who have credentials in policy making, but those who are impacted by the service," Cole said. "What the most important voice becomes is 'how does it impact the child everyday'."

The success of Kitzhaber's education plan hinges on the vote of the Oregon Legislature, which is predicted to face a nearly $1 billion shortfall with the state's general fund this biennium.

In the brief remarks Kitzhaber has made in regards to the investment board, he said, if the reforms are successful, allocation of money will be performance-based rather than enrollment-based, and advancement within education systems will move away from the credit system toward one based on proficiencies, and mastery of skill and knowledge.

Along with the investment team, Kitzhaber also created the Early Learning Design Team with his executive order, which will focus on the development of early-childhood education, and the Performance-based Budget Design Team which will manufacture a performance-based budgeting plan for the governor's zero through 20 education plan.

Cole said, he has had some preliminarily discussions will other members of the investment team, but isn't sure what it will come up with in its two-month window for reform, which begins on March 23, at the investment teams first scheduled meeting.

"It can't be a one shoe fits all policy if it's going to meaningful, and I think we have to do a better job of making sure that the experience of public education has integrity behind it," he said.

"You've got to believe in the hope of what education can provide."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4468 or e-mail samuelcwheeler@gmail.com

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