Proposal aims to put teachers at the helm of Oregon's education department

Stock Photo: U.S. Census Bureau.

Once upon a time in the not too distant past, the people of Oregon elected a state superintendent of public instruction.

The Legislature, at the behest of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, did away with that position in 2011. Now in 2017 there is a bill in front of lawmakers that would bring that elected position back, but with one major difference: the state superintendent of public instruction would need to be an educator.

Some critics of how Oregon conducts its educational system say it lacks little, if any, input from professional teachers and administrators.

The Senate Committee on Education held a public hearing on the bill last week in a nearly empty Capitol hearing room in Salem. Committee Chair Arnie Roblan even commented that he expected more people to show up. One of his colleagues on the committee, Sen. Jeff Kruse, told him not to worry: People would show up “at the appropriate time.”

But those who did show up were heavy hitters in the state’s education system. Two representatives of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest and influential teachers union, testified in favor of the bill that would re-establish the elected position of state superintendent of public instruction, but would require the person to have at least five years of experience as a public school teacher or administrator.

The lack of educators in the decision-making process at the state level has long irked the OEA.

“I know from experience that there are often policies that come down from the state Board of Education that make absolutely no sense for schools,” said John Larson, the vice president of the OEA and a 25-year teacher in Oregon. “And if you just had experts in education on the state Board of Education they probably could have told them that before they passed those policies down.”

The last person to hold the office of superintendent of public instruction as an elected official was Susan Castillo, a former legislator and television journalist. She resigned in 2012 after the Legislature eliminated the position.

In addition to eliminating the superintendent of public instruction, lawmakers also followed Kitzhaber’s lead and created the Oregon Education Investment Board and the position of the chief education officer. The idea was to streamline the education system and target limited funding to student outcomes.

The Oregon Education Association was one of the chief critics of the OEIB. And in 2015 lawmakers dismantled the board but kept the Chief Education Office with a clause to sunset it in 2019.

Laurie Wimmer, OEA’s government relations consultant, who also testified, characterized the new bill as “part two of the repair work for education governance.”

“We believe the best way to select the superintendent is to ensure a qualified educator run for office and be elected by the people,” she said.

The bill would also change the makeup of the state Board of Education to ensure educators are among the members. The bill would require six members to be elected statewide and have five years of experience as a teacher or administrator in public education. Five others would be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

Kruse has introduced his own bill that would instead require the state Board of Education to appoint the superintendent of public instruction. The board members themselves would be appointed by the governor. But the governor would be required to select the 11 members from a list put forth by K-12 schools, community colleges, and higher education institutions.

Kruse said his intention was to get the politics out of education so that “we have a professional board running what is probably the most important enterprise we have in the state: That’s the education of our kids.”

Don’t expect these bills to pass this year, however. Roblan said he wants to start a workgroup consisting of interested parties by the end of this year’s legislative session. He suggested he’s open to ideas to fix a system that he indicated had become too disjointed.

“It has become clear to me that we have an awful lot of boards directing different people in different ways in the educational enterprise,” he said. “And when you get too many cooks in the kitchen, the opportunity for overlap and redundancy and not as wise use of money, becomes more and more evident.”

The bills:

Senate Bill 746 - Establishes Superintendent of Public Instruction as statewide elected office.

Senate Bill 649 - Provides that new State Board of Education established under Oregon Constitution shall consist of 11 members appointed by Governor to represent kindergarten through grade 12, community colleges and public universities.

SJR 37 - Proposes amendment to Oregon Constitution creating State Board of Education.

Watch the public hearings:

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