Oregon Revamps School System, Makes Governor Superintendent

Published July 22, 2011

Oregon is in the process of almost completely revamping the state’s public-school sector from kindergarten through graduate school, after passage of new legislation this summer. 

The 14-bill package included laws centralizing public education—most notably in SB 552, which names Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) superintendent of public education, and SB 909, which creates a central education committee appointed by the governor. 

The laws also increase school choice by allowing students to attend schools outside their assigned districts, increasing charter school authorizers, and enabling districts to opt out of Education Service Districts that provide contracted services such as cleaning and health services.

The new laws make Oregon one of 36 states (plus Washington, DC) with an appointed superintendent of public instruction. SB 552 also requires the governor to appoint a deputy superintendent responsible for day-to-day oversight of the state’s public schools, a suggestion originally made by the Oregon Confederation of School Administrators.

The changes will take full effect by 2015. More detailed implementation plans should be released in December, according to the governor’s office.

The bill package, which passed in June, is the work of political compromise between Democrats and Republicans in the state House and Senate. 

Centralizing Boards, Superintendent
Steve Buckstein, senior policy analyst and founder of the Cascade Policy Institute, said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the package and in particular supports the bills increasing school choice.

“Still, the bill package has downsides. I think the centralization bills are bad for the state, and the formation of the central committee is the worst change,” Buckstein said. “It is centralizing too much power in one office. The marketplace should be more involved.”

Kitzhaber takes control of the Oregon Department of Education in 2014, when Superintendent Susan Castillo’s term expires.

Gayle Rasmussen, president of the Oregon Education Association, a union representing 48,000 Oregon teachers, said, “We are truly concerned that this tips the scales in favor any given governor’s political agenda. And that erodes the checks and balances that are in the system.”

Buckstein, however, says teachers unions have held too much power and impeded needed changes for children. In 2008, Oregon teachers unions spent $357 per teacher to fight ballot measures that would place limits on union activity. 

Changing the Education Model
Kitzhaber posits lofty goals for Oregon education.

“We are going to be a national leader in explicitly changing the model for early childhood education and directly connecting that to the education system,” he said.

By 2025, Kitzhaber says, he wants 40 percent of Oregon adults to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, another 40 percent to have an associate’s degree or equivalent, and the remaining 20 percent to earn at least a high school diploma.

SB 909 places control of the state’s $7.4 billion education fund into the hands of the new board, and with this one entity able to control spending from preschool through college and prioritize spending according to performance goals, Kitzhaber hopes it will allow students to advance at their own pace, he said.

“Right now we have a system based on seat time, and what varies is the degree of education you get. We need to flip that,” Kitzhaber said.

Rep. Betty Komp (D-Woodburn), co-chair of the legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Education said, “I think the governor’s approach here is very wise. He’s looking at finding efficiencies in our system. Yet, we’ll be doing it in a way that uses those dollars better and makes sure they get into the classroom.”

“We’ve succeeded in shifting the debate about education from solely focusing on K-12 funding to the structural changes needed to deliver better results for students, more resources for teachers, and more accountability for taxpayers,” Kitzhaber said.


The new 15-member Oregon Education Investment Board will:

Replace both the Oregon Board of Education and the State Board of Higher Education.
• Oversee Oregon’s entire public education system for students up to age 20.
• Be chaired by the governor.
• Control 51 percent of Oregon’s education fund.
• Award funds to schools based on performance, not enrollment.
• Appoint members to give advice on education spending in an Early Learning Council and a Post-Secondary Coordinating Commission.
• Have a chief education investment officer, appointed by the governor, instead of an elected superintendent of public instruction.
• Have the power to create subordinate boards if necessary.

The legislature passed fourteen bills on education in the 2011 session. These include:

• SB 909: Puts preschool through college-level education under the direction of an Education Investment Board to provide the flexibility for students to progress at their own pace.
• SB 552: Names the governor superintendent of state schools.
• HB 2301: Allows up to 3 percent of students per district to be enrolled in online, or “virtual,” charter schools.
• HB 3645: Allows universities and community colleges to sponsor charter schools.
• HB 3681: Enables students to attend schools outside their local district.
• SB 250: Frees school districts from having to participate in Education Service Districts that contract for services such as cleaning and health stations. Instead, the districts can purchase ESD services elsewhere.
• HB 3474: Creates a new fund with which the Department of Education and Teacher Standard and Practices Commission is to develop teacher development and mentoring programs.
• HB 3362: Allots $2 million fund career, vocational, and technical classes in public and charter schools.
• SB 248: Requires school districts to offer full-day kindergarten classes for free by 2015.