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A public corporation?

Byline: The Register-Guard

John von Schlagel is frustrated. The Portland businessman joined the State Board of Higher Education five years ago, hoping to see the system make great strides. That didn't happen.

So, recently he resigned from the board and fired off a letter to the man who appointed him, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, outlining "what I believe should be on the table and must happen if we want higher education in this state to survive, let alone thrive and excel."

The letter offered eight suggestions, but its essence was contained in the first two:

1) The system should organize itself as a public corporation with its own self-perpetuating Board of Regents. This would give it an "ability to manage itself as an efficient, coordinated entity rather than a loose, less efficient confederation."

2) The corporation should receive block funding from the state at a level "no less than the U.S. median state contribution per student times the number of students Oregon wants to educate. In other words, Oregon's funding per student would need to be no worse than 25th out of 50 states. As you know, we are currently 48th or 49th."

The irony is that Oregon's public universities have a money problem. If they could solve the money problem it wouldn't matter whether they adopted a public corporation model or maintained the simple "state agency" arrangement they have now. But unless they solve the money problem, no amount of fiddling with the administrative structure will do much good.

Von Schlagel may not be aware of it - he didn't refer to it in his letter - but the public corporation horse has been around the Oregon track before.

In 1994, the Higher Education 2010 Advisory Panel, a group of citizens appointed by the state board, recommended replacing the State System of Higher Education with a public corporation.

Then-Chancellor Tom Barlett tried and tried to convince suspicious legislators that the new arrangement would not deprive the Legislature of ultimate control over the universities.

Bartlett said it as many different ways as he could. But finally, the board bagged the public corporation idea and traded it for a proposal called the "Higher Education Administrative Efficiency Act for the 21st Century."

What happened to that proposal the available record does not disclose. But more detail is not necessary to grasp the basic lesson: The Legislature is jealous of its prerogatives with respect to higher education, even though it is not very generous with funding.

It's not wholly the Legislature's fault that higher ed has been starved for public tax funding in the past two decades. That has been an unintended consequence of the voters' approval of a historic initiative, Measure 5, in 1990. That measure pulled much of the local property tax support out from under the K-12 schools, which forced the Legislature to fill the gap with state general funds. The state has never been able to make up that loss for other state functions, particularly the public universities.

If Von Schlegel really wants to help, he should get some of his well connected friends together and devise a Measure 5 replacement tax that is guaranteed to win public support and get Oregon back to where it was.

His administrative restructuring ideas, though well-intended, are not much help.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 8, 2009
Previous Article:Let's ban beach driving.

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