Leadership: Republican Style (Answers for Oregon)

Leadership should be the hallmark of this next gubernatorial election. For twenty years we have had a string of Democrat governors who have one, and only one, solution for Oregon – bigger government, bigger salaries, bigger benefits, and bigger staffs. The cost of maintaining the status quo (existing programs) at the state level (including funding for schools) increases annually by more than the percentage increase in total gross income of the state’s population. Not once in the twenty year reign of Democrat governors has there been an attempt to undertake a comprehensive review of existing programs with an eye to either eliminating unnecessary programs or imposing efficiency in the delivery of those programs. And, quite frankly, the Republican dominated legislature, enjoying the fruits of a rapidly growing economy during the 90’s, failed to demand the hard choices that should routinely be applied to any enterprise, public, private or governmental.

But this is a new election and I have been harping on the issue of leadership and the need for the Republican candidates to demonstrate that leadership in order to avoid another gubernatorial election that defaults to the Democrats. Along with the harping comes the responsibility to highlight instances where those candidates demonstrate that quality of leadership. I have begun to scour the candidates’ websites and news reports for instances in which that leadership is demonstrated and I intend to talk about it at length in this column between now and the primary.

The first such instance is a recent speech by Ron Saxton to the Oregon Education Association – better known as the teachers’ union. Leadership starts with being honest about the situation and Saxton laid it out in spades. After all these years of prolific spending and blue ribbon commissions here is the state of Oregon’s K-12 education system as articulated by Saxton. Only 70% of students entering high school will graduate. Only 15% of students entering high school will graduate from college – and that’s after six years, not four. Oregon ranks in the bottom five of states in these key student achievement areas. Oregon’s education system is failing Oregon’s children and the taxpayers who finance it. Oregon spends less on teacher’s salaries but more on benefits (PERS and healthcare) than any of our neighboring states. The per capita cost of education in Oregon exceeds Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

Simply put by Saxton, “Oregon cannot continue to offer total compensation packages that exceed those available to most taxpayers.” He also notes, “Oregon’s education leaders cannot keep asking for more money without showing taxpayers that their tax dollars are being spend in the classroom and not on administration or bureaucratic waste.” And finally, he notes, “[W]ith or without additional revenues, the solution to Oregon’s education woes is going to be found in a fundamental rethinking of how we operate schools.”

There it is folks in simple terms. Oregon’s education system is failing. It is not from lack of money as the Democrats and teachers unions would have us believe. It is because the system is fundamentally broken. It is a structural problem and not simply a financial problem. Throwing more money at a broken system is just wasteful.

When automakers were asked to improve mileage on cars, they didn’t simply continue the same process and start making smaller cars and smaller engines and less performance. They brought innovation to the process and produced smaller, more efficient engines that could produce the same power with lower fuel consumption. They used fuel injection, computerized timing devices, modified turbos and a host of other innovations to produce better results more efficiently.

And that is exactly what is going to have to be done to recover the education process in Oregon – better performance and lower costs. And Saxton has ideas about how to do that. They may not be all that is needed but here are some highlights:

· Fix PERS. Right now PERS is adding over a 20% surcharge to salaries as compared to Washington’s 6%. That additional 14% could be used to add one more teacher for every seven already existing. A 14% cut in classroom size would result in going from 22:1 to 19:1 student/teacher ratio.

· Privatizing non-core functions. You don’t need a public employee to manage warehouses, do custodial work, or undertake printing functions. It the public employees unions think they are so efficient, let them bid for such services against private industry.

· Merit pay. Top teachers should be paid more than marginal performers. Currently teachers get raises based on longevity (step increases) rather than performance. Paying a poor teacher more money doesn’t make that person a better teacher. Competing for the top dollars will improve everyone’s performance.

· Charter schools. Giving parents a choice of which school their children can attend will do more to highlight poor performing schools than anything else. Competition amongst the schools will leave the poorly performing schools empty and the efficient schools brimming.

· Identification and elimination of poor performing teachers. That means modification or elimination of tenure or union job protection. Poor performance should not be tolerated simply because of union work rules.

That’s leadership. Identifying the real problem and addressing solutions even though they may upset the embedded bureaucracy. Good for you Ron Saxton.