Kitzhaber pushes education overhaul to Legislature

SALEM — Gov. John Kitzhaber on Tuesday stepped up his push to overhaul Oregon's education system, stumping in the Legislature for his proposal to pay schools based on the performance of their students.

Complaining that debates about education are focused more on money than results, Kitzhaber has proposed merging education agencies under a single birth-to-college oversight board.

Kitzhaber told lawmakers his proposal would redefine Oregon's education system for the first time in decades.

"We need to be investing in a system for the 21st century, not a system that was developed for the past," he said.

The governor acknowledged that his proposal would not offer immediate relief to a school system he called underfunded. But he said it's critical that the state funnel its money into a more effective system as the economy rebounds.

Kitzhaber has long complained that responsibility for educating children, teens and college students is fragmented into independent "silos" that are fighting with each other to get as many dollars as they can from the Legislature. His solution is SB909, which would create the Education Investment Board, a 13-member panel comprised of the governor and 12 people of his choosing, subject to Senate confirmation.

The board would propose budgets to the Legislature for schools, universities and early childhood programs while integrating instruction as students make their way through the education system. A board-appointed education czar would oversee the whole process.

The bill would require the education board to create a computer system that tracks spending on education programs and measures their results.

Oregon schools are paid mostly based on the number of students they have enrolled. Kitzhaber wants them to be paid instead based on the success of their students so that schools have new incentives to perform well and the state can measure the return on its investment in education.

David Rives, Oregon president of the American Federation of Teachers, told lawmakers he agrees that it makes sense to move away from school funding based solely on enrollment. But he said it's important to development reliable measures of student achievement.

Rives also took issue with Kitzhaber's characterization of the education system as "broken."

"We do not have a broken system of education," Rives said. "Fragmented, perhaps. Competing. Not coordinated. But in Oregon this is not a broken system of education that we're dealing with."

Sen. Larry George, R-Sherwood, told the governor he was concerned that centralizing education programs would stifle innovation in schools. Kitzhaber said his goal is to create a system that encourages and rewards innovations that are proven effective.

Lawmakers did not vote on the bill, and no other hearings have been scheduled. A work session to vote on the measure must be scheduled by Friday.

Kitzhaber's proposal also would create an Early Learning Council that reports to the board and is responsible for finding ways to unify an array of education programs for children who haven't started elementary school. The concept is driven largely by recommendations from a team of advisers Kitzhaber convened before taking office, which recommended identifying at-risk children as soon as they're born and helping them get access to health and education programs like Head Start and nutrition services.

The goal, Kitzhaber said, is to ensure children are ready to learn when they get to school.

Education officials say children exposed to poverty, unstable family backgrounds, substance abuse and relatives with criminal records are especially vulnerable to falling behind early in their schooling, and it's difficult for children to catch up once they lag their peers. About 40 percent of the 45,000 children born annually in Oregon meet these criteria.

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