BY LINDA BAKER
Suddenly, Oregon’s education landscape seems to be shifting.
• Former New York City school superintendent Rudy Crew starts work in July as the state’s chief education officer. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo is resigning; next Gov. Kitzhaber will appoint a deputy schools superintendent to oversee the Oregon Department of Education.
• A new political action committee called Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence has raised over $300,000 from Oregon business leaders, including Nike cofounder Phil Night, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle, and Endeavor Capital managing partner John von Schlegell. Their aim is to provide Oregon’s public universities with their own independent governing boards, with bonding authority, ability to hire/fire presidents and budgetary control.
• A committee of state lawmakers is meeting to discuss the board governance issue. By late summer, the committee will make recommendations to next year’s Legislature.
• Sam Adams allocated $7.1 million in the 2012-13 city of Portland budget for Portland public schools, preventing major teacher layoffs.
For a state known more for wringing its hands than actively trying to dig itself out of an education morass, the past two months point to a new flurry of activity and a heightened sense of awareness about the crisis facing public education. That crisis might be framed as the intersection of two simultaneous trends:
First, despite the flurry of activity, no additional public funding is coming into a system that is ranked No. 42 in state higher education funding per student and No. 32 in per pupil state funding for K-12.
Second, new private money is coming into the system, in the form of individual donations and foundation money (the Portland Public Schools Foundation raised a record $3 million from parents in 2011), as well as university tuition, which will increase an average of 6% next year.
I spoke with von Schlegell, who said that although private donations to OSU, PSU and UO are growing, public money for those institutions is declining. The PAC’s objective is “to break that cycle; we have to make (those donations) additive.”
Ed Maletis, another cofounder of Oregonians for Higher Education Excellence, put it this way: “At one time, the majority of university funding came from the state, but when the amount of funding on an annual basis is under six percent, we probably owe it to ourselves to ask is this the best governance model. Increasingly there's a higher reliance on donors and out-of-state tuition. We’re getting to a point where we're asking: how does a public university look with little or no public funding.”
What does a public university look like with no public funding? For that matter, what does a K-12 school system look like with ever diminishing public funding? Is it time for Oregon to adopt a new funding model altogether, a public-private partnership that clearly outlines the roles of the public and the private sector and how the two will work together to ensure equal access to educational opportunities for all Oregonians?
If the Oregon education landscape is shifting, it appears to be shifting toward that hybrid model, at least in the university arena. As for the K-12 sector, Portland’s bailout raises intriguing questions about the relationship between a healthy city and a healthy public school system, and the possibility of tweaking the K-12 governance model to reflect that relationship.
Fueled by state budget crises, the inexorable spread of online education, and an increasingly knowledge-based innovation economy, K-20 education is in line for major disruptions in the coming decade.
Whether those disruptions strengthen or weaken Oregon’s education foundation depends largely on a question that a growing number of stakeholders are now demanding be answered: what kind of funding model will support world-class education in the 21st century? Because in 2012, we have a university system that is public in name only — and a K-12 system headed in that direction.
Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.