In a somber address to Portland City Club
, Gov. Ted Kulongoski
today laid out a bleak vision of Oregon's
present and grabbed hold of Oregon's political third rail with both hands.
The two-term Democratic governor is completing his final year in office and could be forgiven if he took the summer off. Instead, the former labor lawyer drew on the work of his "reset cabinet
" to propose a bold set of approaches to a problem he diagnosed as follows: "the current structure of government is simply not sustainable
anymore," and "the government we have is too expensive to maintain."
The parts of the speech that were most prescriptive and are likely to generate the most heartburn concern K-12 education. Deviating sharply from his party's orthodoxy when it comes to the third rail of public employees, Kulongoski said it's time to stop focusing on how much the Legislature spends on education and start focusing on outcomes.
"We must end our practice of evaluating the success of our education system based solely on how much money it receives," Kulongoski said. "Rarely does the discussion turn to the number or students who succeed, much less how prepared they are to compete in this demanding economy."
In a direct challenge to the powerful Oregon Education Association that helped to elect him and other Democrats, Kulongoski said, "the first step is to align funding with student outcomes...we must embrace charter schools
...and...online learning and virtual
classrooms." Each of those points conflicts directly with the approach of the OEA, which is a huge player in funding the campaigns of Democratic candidates.
Kulongoski, who won election with strong support from public employee unions, also took aim at public sector wages and benefits.
"My message to state and school employees is this: If you don't want a decade of deficits to turn into a decade of layoffs and wage freezes—work with us to manage the cost of your benefits and keep your pay in line with your counterparts in the private sector," the governor said.
Kulongoski proposed several ways in which to dial back compensation: getting employees to pay the 6 percent pension contribution many public sector entities pay on their behalf; engaging in statewide collective bargaining rather than the current fragmented process; and getting employees to pay more of their healthcare costs — or in some cases, any portion of that expense.
Each of those suggestions challenges cherished—and expensive—benefits for core Democratic constituencies.
It did not take long for OEA, which represents 48,000 employees, to fire back. Here's part of the statement that OEA President Gail Rasmussen made in response to Kulognoski's remarks:
Now is the time when we should be banding together to protect what our communities hold most dear - including our public schools. But rather, it looks as if the Governor has chosen to exploit the economic challenge we are facing to push an agenda that doesn't make sense for Oregon's students.
The governor is suggesting concepts that are wholly untested and have not been proven to increase student achievement. We cannot afford for our classrooms to become laboratories and our students and teachers the potential victims of a failed experiment.
We know standardized testing does not accurately measure the success of a student – how could it possibly measure the effectiveness of a teacher? In fact, research has proven time and again that tying evaluations or pay to test scores does nothing to increase student achievement and does not improve the quality of teaching.
Parents are tired of their children's education being dumbed down to test scores. Rather than providing solutions that lift up our schools in this time of crisis, the governor is offering Oregonians failed policy ideas that continue the status quo.
The governor shows that he is out-of-touch with Oregonians by suggesting a move to statewide-collective bargaining for educators. Local communities and parents know what's best for their kids. Decisions about local schools should be made by local communities, school leaders, parents and educators.
If these wrongheaded ideas are implemented, the future of Oregon – the lives of our students, the long-term health of the economy – is at risk.”
Wrongheaded or eminently sensible, the recommendations Kulongoski made today are more specific that anything voters have heard from the two men vying to succeed him: Kulongoski's predecessor, former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat; and Republican Chris Dudley.
So while there was not a single applause line in his speech today and a sold-out ballroom at the Governor Hotel seemed stunned by the vigor with which Kulongoski attacked the status quo, he may have succeeded in setting the agenda for the gubernatorial campaign that culminates in the Nov. 2 general election.