The 'education candidates'? Yes - and no

The 'education candidates'? Yes - and no
Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican Chris Dudley.

The Oregonian from Oct. 3 on how each gubernatorial candidate has yet to show how to help Oregon's public schools:

Oregonians cannot pick their next governor on the basis of which candidate is most committed to public education. On that score, there's not a dime's worth of difference between Chris Dudley and John Kitzhaber.

They both have parents and other family members who spent their lives as teachers.

They both understand that the economic hopes and dreams of Oregonians ride on more available early childhood education, more effective schools and more accessible colleges and universities.

They both are "education candidates," in the best sense of that political label.

In lengthy interviews with members of The Oregonian's editorial board, Dudley and Kitzhaber echoed many of the same ideas about necessary school reforms in Oregon. But if you watch the videotaped interviews at oregonlive.com/thestump you will see differences in emphasis and philosophy.

Kitzhaber zeroes in on the way various segments of Oregon's education system are pitted against one another for funding.

"We have an utterly siloed system," he said, with universities, community colleges, K-12 schools and pre-kindergarten programs battling it out for money. "It's a morass."

Kitzhaber proposes that the state merge all those pots of funding into one unified, transparent education budget and create a new Oregon Education Investment Board to oversee it.

Kitzhaber would seek to make the now-elected superintendent of public instruction appointed by the governor, abolish the Department of Education and move those functions into the Executive Department. All this would give a clear line of authority to the governor on education reforms.

Dudley, too, sees a lack of overall vision and direction from the top of Oregon's education system. He also advocates making the superintendent an appointed position in the governor's office. But rather than a wholesale reorganization of education funding, he says reform begins with better leadership, "more drive at the top."

Dudley offers a range of ideas to improve K-12 schools, including stronger teacher mentoring programs, a teacher certification system more open to people changing careers and a new rating system for schools. "I think schools need to be ranked A through F rather than the terms they are using now that nobody understands," he said.

Both candidates tread lightly around the issue of linking teacher pay with student performance but agree that Oregon should find ways to reward teachers whose students show strong improvement. "I don't support merit pay," Kitzhaber said. "I do support a formative model, where you are measuring progress."

Many Oregonians are looking for a governor who will go to bat for taxpayers — and for students facing larger class sizes, shorter school years and fewer school programs — and seek concessions from teacher unions on retirement and health care benefits. Dudley said he favors statewide, or at least regional, teacher negotiations, rather than the current district-by-district model. "If the state is paying 70 percent of the bill, it makes sense that the state negotiate," he said. Kitzhaber said he is skeptical of statewide negotiations and warns that it might lead to higher, not lower, costs.

On postsecondary education, both express support for proposals to give individual universities more flexibility and financial freedom. Dudley makes a pitch for a highly appealing college scholarship program but offers no plan to pay for it. Kitzhaber says that if education money is pooled as he proposes, postsecondary schools will be better able to compete for their share.

It is, of course, one thing to talk about what's wrong with education and another to fix it. Both candidates are asking voters to take largely on faith their promises to improve schools. Kitzhaber pursued none of these reforms during his eight years as governor. Dudley has no public-service record that voters could use to weigh his ability to deliver on his proposed education reforms.

By now, most Oregonians can tell you what's wrong with their schools. They know the state has neglected its postsecondary education system. They know there is a connection between this neglect and Oregon's stubborn double-digit unemployment and sagging rate of personal income.

They are looking for a governor who not only cares about schools, but has the talent, courage and persistence to make them better. Kitzhaber and Dudley still have to make that case.