Support for education reform is out there

By The Curry Coastal Pilot January 17, 2009 12:24 pm

Oregon’s teachers union won its latest skirmish with Bill Sizemore, whose grab bag of educational reforms failed to win over voters in November. But ideas are a lot harder to defeat than ballot measures, and some of those espoused by activists like Sizemore – including merit pay for teachers – have more support among Oregonians than recent election results suggest.

Such are the findings of The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization that seeks – as its name indicates – to expand parental choice in education. This ideological bent shouldn’t be overlooked, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate the group’s research, which in this case is based on a poll of 1,200 randomly selected Oregon voters. Forty-three percent, by the way, characterized their political views as Democratic, 33 percent as Republican and 20 percent as independent.

What else did respondents have to say? By and large, they do not dislike public schools. Seventy percent characterized Oregon’s public school system as either excellent, good or fair. Neither do most of those surveyed think teachers are overpaid. In fact, 43 percent said teacher salaries are too low. A further 24 percent said salaries are about right.

Both of these results should please the state’s school-employee unions, about whose power, by the way, most Oregonians are quite savvy. Twenty-three percent of respondents said unions have the greatest influence on Oregon’s public school system, second only to state government (26 percent) and well ahead of teachers (15 percent), school boards (14 percent) and – sadly – parents (12 percent).

Perhaps this sense of parental disempowerment is why school choice enjoys such support, even among people who generally like public schools and believe teachers should make more money.

Oregonians polled by The Friedman Foundation even support an innovation that failed in November: merit pay for teachers. Fifty-eight percent of respondents either “somewhat favor” or “strongly favor” financial rewards for teachers whose students make significant academic progress.

This result is not necessarily inconsistent with the fate of Ballot Measure 60, a merit-pay proposal that was crushed in November by a margin of nearly 400,000 votes. The measure would have done a lot more than create financial bonuses for effective teachers. But more importantly, it was tainted by its association with Sizemore, who isn’t one of the state’s more trusted or beloved public figures.

For that reason, the Oregon Education Association (OEA) probably dreads the day Sizemore disappears and a less divisive person emerges to take his place. It’s no coincidence that the most prominent picture on the union’s home page as of Wednesday depicts a defiant Sizemore being escorted by a police officer, his hands apparently cuffed behind his back. Unpopular enemies are the best kind.

But take Sizemore out of the picture, as The Friedman Foundation’s pollsters did, and look what you have: a sample population dominated by self-identified Democrats who support, in concept, merit pay, vouchers and other initiatives that drive teachers unions bonkers. Now, we don’t for a second expect this Legislature to pursue any of these reforms. But as lawmakers do nothing, we hope they have the decency not to claim that their inaction serves the interests of Oregon’s parents and taxpayers – except, perhaps, those who belong to the OEA.

— Wescom News Service