Private sector shapes education reform

Private sector shapes education reform

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The 21st century knowledge economy may be pushing business and education closer together. And yet, the specter of privatization is one of the controversial aspects of Oregon’s new reforms. As Donegan puts it: “The challenge is how do you preserve the public mission that we hold sacred while also enabling new sources of funding in response to disinvestment?”

Although Donegan was referring specifically to the higher education restructuring act, such concerns run especially high in the K-12 arena, where many educators balk at the idea of outsourcing teaching to for-profit schools, “an idea that at the core cuts against public education as a responsibility of the whole,” says Dembrow. Touting more efficient governance as the solution to student achievement also diminishes the role money plays in shoring up the state’s educational system, says Rebecca Levison, former president of the Portland Association of Teachers. “Businesses talk about giving people more choice and autonomy,” she says. “But real choice, real reform, means actually funding music and physical education.”

Now that most of Oregon’s education reforms have become law, policymakers must begin to consolidate boards and create new ones, set achievement goals, and redirect funding to targeted education sectors. Business leaders say they will continue to be active players in the process. The Oregon Business Association’s Angi Dilkes has taken a part-time postion with the governor’s office to help with the transition, and the Oregon Idea is considering a variety of strategies going forward, including “creating more of an army to focus on the 2012 Legislature,” advocating for specific higher education appropriation levels, and targeting particular capital projects, says Francesconi. (It is no coincidence that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be the keynote speaker at the OBA’s annual Statesman Dinner this fall).

Another goal is to address what Deckert refers to as “the cost drivers robbing education: unsustainable growth in corrections and health benefits.” Economic growth is the best way to bring money into the system, Deckert adds, noting that a key objective of education reform is to create lots of high-wage “knowledge workers,” who then pay higher income taxes. “That’s your funding source,” he says.  So far, that kind of market-based approach to shoring up Oregon education has prevailed.

But even business leaders wonder whether the new real-world reforms will actually produce the desired educational and financial results. “The business community has made education their issue and that’s reason for optimism,” says Donegan. “But most of the work is still ahead of us.”