School reforms are a daunting task

Oregon legislators need not bother drafting many of their own proposed bills for the February session. Gov. John Kitzhaber's education reforms will provide more than enough grist for a 30-day session.

Earlier this month the newly formed Oregon Education Investment Board issued its first report outlining a dramatic series of changes leading to a newly coordinated system of public education for everyone from preschool kids to university students. The board plans to present to lawmakers two pieces of legislation packed with significant changes that require more outside scrutiny than they have gotten so far.

The board seeks to eliminate the state Commission on Children and Families and transfer its many programs — Healthy Start, Great Start, Relief Nurseries and the now-separate Child Care Commission — to the purview of an Early Learning Council. Juvenile crime programs also would be transferred to a new Youth Development Council. All these services would be coordinated by so-called "accountability hubs" placed around the state beginning next July 1.

Do all these changes make sense? Will they ensure that more Oregon children are ready to learn when they reach kindergarten? The governor and his education board think so. We hope so. But there are skeptics, some with deep histories in early-childhood education in Oregon, who see more bureaucracy, not less, in the early-childhood reforms. It's crucial that lawmakers ask hard questions.

Likewise, lawmakers must fly-speck the education board's proposed "achievement compacts" with every Oregon school district, education service district, community college and university. It's an entirely new accountability system — the governor's office is seeking a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Under the compacts, every school district would set goals and report results focused on common measures of progress. The investment board describes a "tight, loose" accountability system — districts would be held firmly to measures of student achievement, but would be free to pursue different ways of reaching those goals.

Again, that sounds promising, but lawmakers should have plenty of questions about just how such a system would operate in practice. What happens to districts that regularly fail to live up to their compacts? Kitzhaber has described a system of "diagnosis," where teams of state education officials would intervene in low-performing districts, identify problems and propose solutions. Where do local school boards come in? Is this a shift in authority?

Well, yes. And that's appropriate given that the vast majority of school funding is provided by the state. But questions of shifting power, authority and control need to be openly debated. The board is now searching for a chief education officer who would have "clear authority" to lead the reorganization of education in Oregon.

The Legislature has signed on to these reforms, but only in a general way. Over history, lawmakers have tended to micromanage schools and universities, and Oregon has never invested this kind of sweeping authority in any one education leader. Does it make sense now? That, too, is homework for the February session.

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