By Linda Baker
On July 20, the day Gov. John Kitzhaber signed into law Oregon’s Higher Education Restructuring bill, Duncan Wyse was in his office in the Standard Building in downtown Portland, expounding on the bill and other education reform legislation. “This was the most productive, significant session on education in 20 years,” said Wyse, president of the Oregon Business Council. The 14 education bills, which included expanding online degree and charter school options, cutbacks to educational service districts and the consolidation of state K-12, community college and higher education boards into a single “education investment board,” represented “a big win” for Oregon students, according to Wyse. “The legislation was also a watershed for us,” he said, referring to the business council. “It represents the fruition of work we’ve been doing for 20 years.”
Although a broad coalition of educators, business people and politicians supported and helped pass many — but not all — of the new education laws, the passage of the collective education reforms represented a triumph for the business community. Under the auspices of economic progress plans such as the Oregon Business Plan, Wyse and other business leaders have produced numerous policy papers over the years, advocating the need for specific education reforms. But those efforts languished until this legislative session, when a receptive governor and escalating concerns about the state’s stagnant economy and rock-bottom education investments intensified advocacy efforts and helped catapult Oregon Business Plan Power Points into education law.
The growing prominence of business leaders in education policy reflects concerns about educating, recruiting and retaining workers in a state that ranks 46th in per capita higher education spending and depends on ever-diminishing state dollars for K-12 funding. In the 21st century, the rise of the “knowledge worker” is also closing the gap between public education and business sectors.
But there are more than economic issues at stake. In an era of constrained resources, the more visible business presence also spotlights the sometimes-controversial ways in which private sector models and rhetoric are helping shape the conversation about education reform and funding. Consider one of the key principles animating the Higher Education law: universities will be given more freedom from state regulation in return for meeting “performance targets” such as graduation rates.
“Autonomy, flexibility, performance compacts. Those are all business principles,” says Matt Donegan, co-founder and co-president of Forest Capital Partners and president of the state board of higher education. “We’re tightening accountability but also loosening micro-management and allowing qualified professionals to do their job.”