Oregon Finds Itself in Dunce Chair

Oregon finds itself sitting on the unusual and embarrassing dunce chair for shortcomings in healthcare and education reforms.

At times, Oregon under Governor John Kitzhaber has seemed like the prize pupil of the Obama administration. But recent events have plopped Oregon on the dunce chair.

Oregon may be dead last in enrolling zero people online for health insurance under its health exchange, Cover Oregon. And now the U.S. Department of Education is threatening to withdraw the state's waiver from complying with the No Child Left Behind education requirements. 

Neither represents a policy divergence between Oregon's Democratic government and the Obama team. They reflect a bad poker hand.

Like the federal health care website, Oregon's electronic health insurance portal hasn't performed.  Oregon has pushed to enroll people using paper applications. And the state has added significant numbers of Oregonians to the Oregon Health Plan.

Kitzhaber said the state is too far downstream to change computer consultants, but promises a full accounting when the Cover Oregon website is up and running as intended. The governor has enlisted former Providence CEO Greg Van Pelt and Oregon Health Authority Director Bruce Goldberg to lend their management and medical expertise to unsnarling the IT logjam.

Meanwhile, Oregon, which has an elite reputation as a forward-looking pioneer on health care transformation, has gotten embarrassing bad national press for its major flub on rolling out its health exchange.

The embarrassment is continuing with the Department of Education warning about withdrawal of the No Child Left Behind waiver. Oregon was among the first states to seek and receive a waiver from what state educators called suffocating requirements of the signature education reform proposal from the George W. Bush presidency. The catch is that Oregon agreed to bring together teachers and administrators on a far-reaching plan to bootstrap poor performing schools. That hasn't happened, at least to the satisfaction of federal education officials. 

High expectations by the Kitzhaber team centered on the expertise of Rudy Crew, a nationally recognized guru who was recruited to be czar of an education reform revolution in Oregon. But Crew never clicked with Oregon educators, perhaps in part because he never really put down roots here. In any case, Crew bailed out to take a job elsewhere, leaving the job unfinished and in the hands of interim successors.

Kitzhaber has made solid appointments to lead reforms at both the K-12 and higher education levels, but they need time to get traction for their initiatives. The federal patience clock may expire before they gain any momentum. 

Maybe the bigger shadow draping over these and other hurdles to reform efforts is whether Kitzhaber will run for an unprecedented fourth term. Aides say he is all in. Kitzhaber says he is still weighing options. He reportedly told one confidante that he wonders whether he wants to be governor when he turns 70, which he would be if he runs and wins another term.

Subtract Kitzhaber from the political equation and lots of questions arise about the staying power of his major initiatives. Healthcare reform is probably too engrained to go by the wayside, but it could lose direction and steam. A successor may have very different ideas about how to shape up education in Oregon, which could mean more twists and turns.

There are other issues up for grabs, ranging from how to handle genetically modified crops and privatizing liquor sales to the more overarching question of tax reform. Reconfiguring Oregon's income tax-heavy system of taxation will require an enormous amount of trust. A four-term governor could supply that trust, while a first-term governor may shy away from even touching the issue.

That's a lot to consider while momentarily sitting on the dunce chair.