Why should we discuss policy?

When meeting someone new it is typical for us to share information with each other on what we do and what our interests are.  This is particularly true in a field as diverse as education. My colleagues in the Graduate School of Education grace me with their interests in curriculum and instruction, environmental education, STEM, bilingual education, the education of students with special needs, continuing professional development, service learning, adult education, teacher preparation, school reform and leadership, and so much more. However, when I say that I am interested in federal and state education policy, a new acquaintance may be quick to glaze over and quickly scan the room for a rescuer from a conversation they are sure would be as interesting as watching C-SPAN. So, as we begin a new venture focused on what I hope will be a dialog on issues of policy in Oregon and nationally, I think it is a fair question to ask why anyone would care to talk about it in the first place.

My reason is actually quite simple. Policy operationalizes a foundational characteristic of American society that we should never take for granted, that the quality of our lives individually and collectively depends on the quality of education we provide for all. This vision drove Horace Mann in 1838 in publishing The Common School Journal, laying out a vision for the unifying benefits to an emerging country of well educated individuals. It drove the Committee of Ten in 1892 to lay out a framework of standard elements of curriculum and teacher preparation that reflected the best thinking at the time for what type of education was necessary for individuals to function productively and successfully in society. Much of their work is still in place today. As a country we provided land grant universities to guarantee access to higher education by more people in a growing nation. Industrialization brought a need for innovation and invention, transitioning from a purely agrarian economy to a complex mixture of production of raw materials and manufacturing. From the Civil War to Afghanistan we have faced the need to reeducate individuals from war time to peace time occupations and adapt to new circumstances.  And our economy and our ability to sustain opportunities for individuals and families to enjoy a reasonable quality of life have depended upon technological invention and discovery that reverberates around the world, creating new jobs and demands for new knowledge and services. Our common value of the importance of widely accessible education is embodied in our policies.

And policy and law have also provided the defense of these benefits against those who would deny access to them by others.  Although not without significant difficulty and challenge, our legal and policy framework continues to hold that access to quality education should not be denied on the grounds of race, gender, poverty, language, nationality, ability or status in our communities.  This fundamental principle of equal access to education is a characteristic we should never take for granted or ever fail to defend.

Although public funding for education in Oregon was provided in the original state constitution in 1859, Oregon also constitutionally denied equal rights to Blacks, women, Asians and First Nation people.  Nationally, the initial gains in public participation in society for freed slaves following the end of the Civil War quickly deteriorated through Jim Crow laws and policies of racial segregation.  Segregation of public facilities, including access to public schools, was the official interpretation of the United States Constitution by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. This national policy of segregated schools remained in place until 1954 in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, a period of 58 years. As late as 2007, the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District decision removed constitutional support for school district desegregation efforts.  Thus, we are still faced with the fundamental policy question of who is entitled to a public education, where should that education take place and should the characteristics of the schooling provided be of equal quality?

Words like “policy” and “law” carry with them an aura of rigidity and permanence. We tend to think of them as fixed and unbending with the enforcement resources of state departments of education and courts focused on compliance. However, I think the evidence would support that the opposite is true.  Policy continually evolves and reflects the aspirations of our communities and the professional knowledge of educators.  It is also subject to changing political perspectives and interpretations of the “public good.” In the 1960’s, passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty provided new federal resources to overcome the impact of poverty on education.  In the 1970’s, the courts and federal and state policies addressed issues of discrimination on the basis of gender (Title IX), limited English proficiency (Lau decision) and handicapping condition (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act). In the 1980’s major issues of school finance and equality of expenditure were hammered out (Rodriguez v. San Antonio), along with the landmark decision of Plyler v. Doe guaranteeing educational opportunity for children of undocumented families. In the 1990’s, we saw major national and local reform efforts focus on creation of academic content standards and measurements along with school-to-work readiness (Oregon HB3565, the Katz Bill).  With the reauthorization of ESEA in 2001, renamed the No Child Left Behind Act, national policy focused on accountability measures linked to consequences of mandatory improvement strategies, definitions of teacher quality and student transfer options. For the first time, national policy stated that the intended goal was the attainment of the same state standards by all students.  And we now find ourselves in the middle of yet another national policy debate around the latest reauthorization of ESEA which has not been done in over a decade; coupled with the emergence for the first time of the use of the same standards across multiple states, i.e., the Common Core State Standards; and the use of common assessments, i.e., the Smarter Balanced Assessment (SBA) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).  We are very close to a common set of national standards and assessments that has been driven primarily by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not Congress or the courts. A fundamental question in this debate is whether education has shifted from a state function to a national function, and if it has, who manages that if the decisions were made by non-public bodies?

At the state level, Oregon is in the midst of one of the most significant policy shifts in its history.  There have been earlier changes, to be sure.  Think, for example, of the creation of the Certificates of Initial and Advanced mastery (CIM and CAM); of the reform of the High School Graduation requirements and the creation of the Essential Skills; or of passage of Ballot Measure 5 in 1990 and the shift from locally funded schools to state funded schools. All of these had a significant policy impact on the state.  However, Governor Kitzhaber, after being elected to his second opportunity to serve as Governor, has initiated a sequence of policy reforms laid out over three sessions of the Oregon legislature that has significantly altered the governance of education in the state and the level of investment in education; and, ultimately, could overhaul the way education is financed.  These reforms began in the 2011 session with a focus on the governance of education, and saw the Governor being named Superintendent of Public Instruction, creation of the Oregon Education Investment Board, creation of the Office of the Chief Education Officer, and the integration of the new Early Childhood Council, the Oregon Department of Education, the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, the Oregon University System and the Oregon Student Assistance Commission into a seamless system of pre-kindergarten through higher education services.  Accountability for schools shifted from the grade level expectations of No Child Left Behind to a focus on student growth over time and the creation of Achievement Compacts that identify key performance indicators and asks the educational institutions themselves to identify and be held accountable for their expected level of growth and improvement.

The second phase of this work focused on putting a halt to the continuing reduction of investment in education in the state and restoring a level of funding that would, at least, arrest the financial tumble education has faced.  The legislature in the 2013 session approved approximately $1 Billion in new funding along with a cluster of bills, known as the Strategic Initiatives, that provided new investment in teacher preparation, early childhood collaborative planning, STEM initiatives, investment in programs for limited English proficient students and other areas of needed new investment.  Governance of higher education was significantly changed by creating independent governance boards for the three largest universities in the state system and creating the Higher Education Coordinating Commission.  An essential element of this transformation, the reform of the Public Employee Retirement System, was only partially successful in redirecting additional dollars to schools in the 2013 Legislative Session.  The Governor is currently working on a possible special session to complete his effort which could provide, if successful, additional funding for education.

The third phase of this reform effort, as discussed by the Governor during the 2013 session, is to consider possible tax reform and to seek a more permanent and stable solution to Oregon’s school funding issues in the 2015 session.  If successful, this would complete a three-session overhaul of Oregon education governance and finance that would form a more stable and more integrated base upon which to base future improvement efforts.

These and other policy issues will occupy this space and we invite your participation, feedback and thoughts.  We hope to provide thoughtful and relevant discussions of significant policy issues that deepen our collective understanding of our goals and outcomes, what we are committed to accomplishing, how we are going to accomplish it and how we will measure our progress. Policy captures our aspirations and intentions for children and youth.  It is in policy where we state our beliefs and commit ourselves to action.  Your voice is a critical part of this conversation.


Pat Burk, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy in the Graduate School of Education.

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