Last year for example, Associated Oregon Industries, the Oregon Business Association and the Portland Business Alliance created a joint task force on higher education, one of the first initiatives to bring together all three business associations. Another new and pivotal player was the Oregon Idea, a year-old nonprofit founded by Portland lawyer Jim Francesconi that waged an unprecedented email and social media campaign, mostly from businesses, in support of the Higher Education Restructuring bill, as well as higher appropriation levels for the Oregon University System schools, community colleges and Oregon Health & Science University.
Stepped-up advocacy is one sign of growing business influence in matters of education policy. The adoption of business-supported principles and policy platforms is another. The Oregon Proficiency Project, a program of E3: Employers for Education Excellence, an Oregon Business Council spinoff, contains a blueprint for the state’s new proficiency-based education law, which aims to reorient student learning around mastery of material rather than credits or hours in a classroom. This is not a new idea, but one that gained traction with the involvement of E3.
Another example is the 40-40-20 law, which states that by 2025, 40% of all adult Oregonians will have a bachelor’s degree, 40% an associate degree and 20% a high school diploma or equivalent. The private sector connection is perhaps most apparent in the online and charter school laws, which will allow for-profit, out-of-state schools such as Connections Academy to educate more Oregon public school students.
Curt Johnson, a nationally recognized education reform consultant retained by the Oregon Business Council, describes Oregon’s education laws as “real world,” be it the new K-20 budget model oriented around student outcomes and achievement instead of enrollment, or the expansion of learning options for K-12 students. The new reforms are also part of a larger trend in which the gap between education and the marketplace is narrowing, some educators say.
“Traditionally, there have been two visions of education,” says Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) and a Portland Community College English instructor. “One says education is useful and leads to jobs; the other is that education develops the individual and creates critical thinking.” But with “the change in the nature of work,” Dembrow says, “We’re seeing some elimination of the barriers between these two visions.”