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Q&A: School's Out, But Kitzhaber's Education Plan Is Still Cramming For Tests

Oregon legislators are likely just days from adjournment. But much of Governor John Kitzhaber’s education agenda remains up in the air. 

Kitzhaber made reforming Oregon’s education system a very public part of his agenda for this year. At a press conference in February, the governor announced a new education oversight team.

John Kitzhaber: “The work of the team created by the executive order will be assumed by a new Oregon Investment Board, that will hopefully be created by the legislature, based on legislation we’ve introduced.”

Kitzhaber hasn’t seen that bill on his desk yet, to sign into law.

I’m joined by OPB’s Education reporter, Rob Manning, to talk about where Kitzhaber’s education agenda stands.

Rob, even though Kitzhaber hasn’t seen the bill ready to sign — he has been bargaining over it in the negotiating room. Is that right?

Rob Manning: Yes, that’s true. I understand that the governor is in the middle of some pretty intense negotiations around what his office calls the “909 package.” It’s named for Senate Bill 909 – the Oregon Investment Board bill. That’s the central bill, but it’s by no means the only one.

There are at least seven bills the governor has on his agenda that haven’t passed.

There’s a bill to reduce legislative oversight of public universities.

There’s another to turn the currently elected position of Superintendent of Public Instruction into an appointed job in the governor’s office.

There’s a bill to overhaul education service districts. And there’s a bill to mandate full-day kindergarten.

None of those high-priority bills have reached the governor. They’re all still in the legislative process but more important, they’re the subject of intense negotiations, involving the governor and legislative leaders.

If you’re not “in the room” though – it can be hard to know what’s happening with these bills. The governor’s spokeswoman, Christine Miles, said she couldn’t give me a meaningful update on the talks, because she’s not in the room, either.

Christine Miles: “That is something that I can’t address because I’m not the governor, and only he knows what’s happening behind the scenes. What I can tell you is that everyone here is working hard in the final days to make education happen, to make the transformation happen.”

Beth Hyams: Apart from the governor, who is involved in these talks?

Rob Manning: Republican leaders are key to the talks, especially in the evenly-divided Oregon house, because of course, any deal will ultimately need to get majority approval in both chambers.

Beth Hyams: Do the Republicans have competing ideas, or different ideas?

Republicans have their own bills they want to get through. They all deal with what they would call “school choice.”

Two deal with charter schools. One would expand which organizations can authorize charters – right now, it’s only the state and school districts. The new bill would let community colleges, universities, and possibly other entities authorize them, too.

The other charter bill would raise enrollment caps on the state’s online charter schools.

There’s also a bill that would allow students to transfer more easily to another school district.

Beth Hyams: K-12 advocates have been pushing for more classroom spending. Is that part of these talks, too?

Rob Manning: Yes. What I’ve heard is there’s roughly 25 million dollars from the Education Stability Fund on the table as part of the talks.

There’s also the potential to spend on a program run by the Chalkboard Project called “CLASS.” It’s basically a teacher incentive program. So, there’s about five million dollars in play to help beef up that program.

Beth Hyams: Now, are these backroom conversations about education funding and policy really any different from what happens every session?

I think that’s a good question. I asked the same thing, earlier today, of OPB’s political analyst Bill Lunch. Here’s what he said:

Bill Lunch: “It is perfectly normal for an activist governor – which John Kitzhaber certainly is – to make deals inside the governor’s office, which will then essentially be ratified by the legislature.”

There are two differences with where things were at in past years. For one, former governor Ted Kulongoski was less likely to be so directly involved in deals like these.

What I’m hearing from some advocates – like the Oregon Education Association - is that they think some of the bills haven’t been adequately aired in public, particularly the “school choice” bills the Republicans have brought forward.

What I’ve heard from some advocates close to the talks is that the bills are being amended – and moderated. And they’re continuing to be amended.

Beth Hyams: And when will we get the last word?

Rob Manning: I’m told that if and when a deal is struck, it’ll be quite public. Until then, it’s private.

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