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John Kitzhaber's Oregon Dream | The Nation

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John Kitzhaber's Oregon Dream

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Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, file)

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is sitting in a second-floor conference room in downtown Portland’s World Trade Center, explaining the raft of education and healthcare reforms he’s pushing. He’s wearing his signature pressed blue jeans, brown tassled loafers, a white shirt, purple tie and dark blue woolen sports jacket. His gray hair is neatly combed, his mustache carefully trimmed. When he wants to illustrate a policy point on healthcare, he gets up, strides over to a white board and draws a graph showing the trade-offs between the willingness of doctors to absorb economic risks and the amount of time they spend on each patient. 

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Sasha Abramsky
Sasha Abramsky, who writes regularly for The Nation, is the author of several books, including Inside Obama’s...

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It’s mid-February. The next week, the governor will receive notice that his state is one of six to be awarded a prestigious State Innovation Model grant, worth up to $45 million, by the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Innovation, which was established under the Affordable Care Act. Oregon received the grant because of the reforms Kitzhaber’s administration has pushed regarding delivery of medical services. 

In healthcare, Kitzhaber’s goal is to provide a financial incentive to doctors and hospitals to pursue less expensive diagnostic and treatment models, and to spend more time cultivating preventive and primary care relationships with patients. In education, it’s about encouraging educators, parents, students, healthcare providers and community institutions to work together to improve outcomes, rather than simply getting kids into the classroom and letting inertia take over. In both cases, it’s about recalibrating priorities. The governor, who’s known for approaching complex policy problems with the technical precision of an engineer, suddenly quotes the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca: “No wind’s the right wind if you don’t know what port you’re sailing for.” 

This is a story of focus, of a push by Oregon’s third-term governor (he held the job from 1995 to 2003 and was re-elected in November 2010, as the state struggled to overcome recession and fiscal crisis) to reinvent the way that government delivers core services, especially in healthcare and education. His aim is that, by 2025, 40 percent of the state’s high school students will go on to attend four-year colleges, 40 percent will attend community colleges, and the remaining 20 percent will graduate from high school or get an equivalency degree. Integrated funding mechanisms—some in place, some still under development—will back up these aspirations, and long-term timelines for reform will, the governor hopes, ultimately make Oregon’s population better educated and healthier. 

Kitzhaber has particular credibility on these issues: he’s not only a three-time governor but a former legislator and emergency-room doctor. He has earned a national reputation for thinking holistically and eliminating compartmentalized policy and funding silos that ought to be dealt with as parts of a continuum. In all likelihood, that was why he was invited to sit in Michelle Obama’s box during the 2013 State of the Union address; soon afterward, he was addressing the National Governors Association about his reforms. 

Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, Kitzhaber introduced into our conversation his grandiosely named Unified Theory of Everything. “The pathway to the American Dream,” he argues, in an e-mail he sends me shortly after we meet, “revolves around a job for which the individual is paid a living wage—enough to meet their basic needs—and an opportunity for upward income mobility. To create that pathway our public institutions (government) and our economy must be aligned around the same goal: to ensure an equal opportunity for all Americans to achieve their shared aspirations.” For Kitzhaber, poverty and ill health are too often the result of inadequate education; fixing these problems is what he calls the “left side” of his unified theory. On the right side, he talks about the need to invest in clean technologies and renewables, to open routes to prosperity that neither denude the environment nor leave millions unemployed. 

Over the past two years, Kitzhaber has focused mainly on the left side of his equation, pushing through the Oregon legislature—which was almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats from 2011 to 2012—an extraordinary raft of reforms, with bipartisan cooperation, and setting in motion an ambitious overhaul of healthcare and education. “How do you finance public education, and make sure that the system of public education is actually producing the outcomes that you want?” the governor asks. “It’s very, very clear that the greatest inequities and disparities in our country are among the poor, communities of color and English-language learners. Those kids often arrive at kindergarten with a large achievement gap. And many of them are not able to overcome that. The pathway up is early childhood—making sure that every child arrives at the classroom in kindergarten ready to learn.” 

Kitzhaber has pushed the legislature to spend more on education in a drive to improve poorly performing schools. As his healthcare savings kick in, he hopes to add to those totals. And he isn’t just talking about K–12, but what he calls a “0–20 strategy.” In fact, it starts before birth, with prenatal counseling, and involves better nutrition programs, parenting classes and medical clinics in school settings. He wants to prepare all kids for kindergarten, have them reading at grade level by third grade, and get middle school kids ready for high school. He wants high school kids taking community college and university classes. Kitzhaber’s integrated model continues all the way through graduate school. 

Underlying these aspirations are a series of “achievement compacts” the state has signed with local school districts, colleges and universities, with a number of financial carrots to encourage better teaching. “Ultimately,” argues Ben Cannon, the governor’s education policy adviser, “it’s about a desire to create a truly seamless experience for students and their families. The state’s role is principally to establish the budget and desired outcomes, and empower regions and communities to deliver those outcomes.” 

Schools that meet those standards are labeled “model” schools, and are essentially given the funds and space to pursue their specialized projects. Those with poor success rates are categorized as “focus” or “priority” schools; the state assigns them “coaches”—retired administrators and other education specialists—who work with the principal and teachers to improve administration and classroom methods. 

The Oregon Education Investment Board, created in 2011 by the State Senate and responsible for coordinating these initiatives, is planning investments on innovative programming that could range as high as a couple hundred million dollars annually; the exact amount is being negotiated by the legislature. This is out of a total education budget of roughly $8 billion. The grants are intended to reward pilot projects that are finding the quickest ways to reach the new goals. The hope is that these investments will have magnifier effects on the broader system. “This industry, its greatest currency is relationships where people share knowledge, expertise and common interests,” says Rudy Crew, the erstwhile New York City schools chancellor hired by the governor last July as the state’s chief education officer. “But can they share when they’re not on each other’s natural dance cards? That takes more orchestration. I meet with the superintendents, go to their meetings, go to their homes. This is a campaign; this is not just a casual set of comments.” 

These days, for example, it’s no longer enough for community colleges or universities to have lots of students enrolled in classes and picking up credits; now their graduation rates will be under the microscope. Ultimately, their funding levels will depend on graduation numbers. 

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