Education reform bills set Oregon on new path

Many worried that an evenly divided Legislature grappling with a $3.5 billion budget deficit and high unemployment wouldn't be able do much about education this session.

But instead of getting sidetracked by partisan rhetoric, Oregon legislators put aside their differences and stepped up to the challenge. The resulting package of reforms represents the most significant education policy in two decades — abandoning the status quo — and moving toward a student-centered education system designed to achieve our state's education and economic objectives.

In a significant break with the past, the debate about improving Oregon's public education system has shifted from focusing solely on the K-12 school budget to a more thoughtful discussion about changes needed to deliver better results for students, more resources for teachers and more accountability for taxpayers.

On Tuesday, I signed Senate bill 909, creating an efficient and accountable "zero-to-20" education system that integrates early childhood services with K-12 and post-secondary education and training. It recognizes that investing in early childhood success is the key to future success. Ensuring children are ready to learn when they reach kindergarten and reading by first grade is perhaps the single most important factor in determining their future educational success and career potential.

Until now, we have approached early childhood, K-12, technical, community college and higher education as separate entities — in silos — that operate independently and are forced to compete for their share of the budget pie. As a result, the fiscal health of our schools is related to the number of students enrolled, not on how well those students are actually doing in school — and too many students are falling through the cracks. Right now, less than a quarter of at-risk first graders are able to meet state reading benchmarks and fewer than one in four Oregonians is ready for college upon leaving high school.

This session's bipartisan education reform package will make needed structural changes to education funding and governance to create a more outcome-based, accountable and innovative system. A new Oregon Education Investment Board will have governance responsibility spanning the entire continuum — from pre-school to post-graduate education — changing the state's role from a funder of schools to an investor in education outcomes. We'll be better positioned to assess student needs, tailor instruction to ensure proficiency and measure success.

Other reforms will increase student learning options. The Legislature made important progress in making full-day kindergarten available to all, increasing the availability of online education options and revitalizing vocational education programs.

But the focus on outcomes applies to teachers as well as students; we are enacting legislation to make sure teachers have increased opportunities for professional development and to establish uniform standards for educators and administrators.

Our goal is to make sure that by 2025, all high-school graduates are prepared to pursue a post-secondary education, that 40 percent of those students achieve at least two years of post-secondary education or training and that 40 percent of all students achieve a bachelor's degree or higher.

The bold policies passed this session set us on a new path, but let me be clear that these structural changes are not a substitute for adequate, stable funding. As we seek to increase our financial investment across the education continuum, we are now prepared to be investing in a system designed for the 21st century and creating a more prosperous future for Oregon.

John Kitzhaber is the governor of Oregon.

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