Address to Oregon League of Women Voters
February 7, 2012
As you know, I have a long history with the League of Women Voters. My mom was an activist down in Eugene and a state president about the time I ran for office. She had a very profound impact on my career and my life and my beliefs. One of the things that really struck me about the League of Women Voters, from the time I was very young, was the belief that citizenship and democracy don’t end at the ballot box; they actually begin at the ballot box. Far too many people think that you just change the governor or the president or the members of congress, all the problems go away, and you really don’t have any responsibility beyond who you vote for. Your engagement is on the campaign level, not what happens after that. I think that’s one of the problems we face in our country today – the fact that this system only works to the extent that citizens own it and get engaged in it.
I want to give you an analogy from a guy named Ron Heifetz who teaches at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He’s a physician – I think he was a surgeon. He talks about problems, and when I say “doctor” I want you to think “government," and when I say "patient," I want you to think “citizens.” This is a medical analogy, but I think it says everything about where we are today and where we need to go.
So a type one problem would be like bacterial pneumonia, where you go to the doctor, the doctor writes you a prescription for antibiotics, and you get better. So the responsibility to solve that problem rests just with the doctor.
A type two problem would be like cardiovascular disease, where you can go to the doctor and they can give you some medicine to help your heart, they give you something to lower your cholesterol, but if you don’t change the way you live, if you don’t stop smoking, if you don’t change your diet, if you don’t exercise, you don’t get better. So a type two problem, to solve it, there’s a shared responsibility between the doctor and the patient.
A type three problem would be like terminal cancer, where the challenge is for the doctor and the patient to figure out how to deal with a set of circumstances they can’t change. There’s something you have to deal with, and how to go beyond that.
The problem in America today is we’ve got a type one governance system trying to solve type two and type three problems. You can’t pass a law to reduce poverty, you can’t pass a law to reduce child abuse or deal with at-risk kids. It requires a huge community effort.
So let me give you a little contrast between where we were 44 years ago and where we are today and what’s changed, what hasn’t changed, what should change.
So I got my political awakening in the spring of 1968 with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. And that was a period of intense citizen involvement, whether it was registering black voters in the south, going and sitting in a segregated restaurant so you could get arrested and go to jail because you wanted to highlight a law that was discriminatory, or whether it was Bobby Kennedy’s last campaign which was all about poverty and the disenfranchised in America, and about giving a voice to the voiceless and engaging citizens in something larger than themselves.
Today, all those problems that we were trying to solve in 1968 are still with us. Oregon has 21 counties that still have double-digit unemployment rates. One out of every 4 children in this state is hungry. Half of all African American children in Oregon live in poverty. Eighteen thousand kids every year come to school unable to learn, with a huge achievement gap, because of risk factors they experienced when they were very young. We’re only graduating 67 percent of our kids from high school.
So a lot of those problems haven’t changed much since 1968, have they? The fact is, there is no quick fix to those problems, but there is a fix. And the fix is based on, I think, the premise of the League of Women Voters: that without citizen engagement and ownership of these problems, we’re not going to solve our problems.
But what you need to have to solve those problems is a clear direction, a common vision, a destination where you want to go, that everyone can believe in and be invested in. You know, when John Kennedy made that famous speech in 1962, that we were going to put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, he’d just receive a report from National Academy of Sciences that said it’s impossible to go to the moon. We didn’t have the technology or the wherewithal to do it.
So what he gave us was not a roadmap, but a destination. And a destination was so inspirational that it allowed us to mobilize the resources of this country and actually make it happen even before the end of the decade.
I just met with the president of Freightliner. They had set a goal for themselves that they’re going to increase fuel efficiency five percent every three years. He acknowledged that they don’t have the technology yet, but he’s convinced that if they set the goal, they will get there.
Here’s the goal we set for Oregon: that by 2025, we will have a 100 percent high school graduation rate – that every child in Oregon will graduate from high school. Now the kids who enter kindergarten next fall, they’re the class of 2025. Thirteen years to get that done. Forty percent of those kids, when they get out of high school, will get at least two years of post-secondary training, and another 40 percent will get a bachelor degree or higher.
We’ve also committed ourselves to driving per capita income back up above the national average in every region of Oregon, urban and rural, and to erase the income disparities that exist within our communities of color.
Now that’s an aspiration but it’s also a goal that’s possible, and there are two things we have to do to get there. The first has to do with public education. If, as I believe, the promise of opportunity is what lies at the heart of the American dream, the promise of upper mobility, the belief that if you work hard, you can create a better future for your kids, then public education is the vehicle through which that opportunity is most directly fulfilled in this century. And that’s important because the generation right now is the first generation in America that’s likely to be less well educated and less well off than their parents. That wasn’t even true in 1968. So we have a lot of work to do, and education is the first piece to get there.
Kids who actually graduate from high school are much less likely to end up in the criminal justice system, end up using social support services, so if we do this right, we’ll reduce costs in the back end and be able to reinvest that in education.
The other area is health care, which is one of the fastest growing costs in this country – 17 percent of the gross domestic product, producing health outcomes not much better than Cubans. The opportunity cost of spending all that money on health care means there’s less and less to spend on education. So we have to drive down the cost of health care to make people healthier, but also to free those resources up to invest in kids and education.
Last session, we took two important steps along that way. We passed a bill, Senate Bill SB909, created the Early Learning Council that has developed a plan to will ensure that every child in Oregon is ready to learn when they get to kindergarten, ready to read when they get to first grade, and reading at level when they leave the third grade, which is a powerful indicator of their trajectory of success.
The bill also created the Oregon Education Investment Board, which is going to create a transparent, seamless, pre-K through post-secondary education system that’s focused not just on funding schools based on enrollment, but on performance, outcomes, and success.
The second was a bill that, starting with the 600,000 people in the Oregon Health Plan, will try to drive the rate of inflation of the Medicaid program down a full two percent by changing the organization and the incentives of the system from after-the-fact care in the ER and in the hospital, to wellness and prevention of chronic conditions at home and in the community, potentially saving us three billion dollars over the next five years, which in turn can be reinvested back into kids and education.
So what we need you to do is to support these bills. We need permission from the Legislature in the next three weeks so we can move forward. I’m going to give you the bill numbers so you can go read them – I know that’s what you do. My mother used to spend hours and hours reading everything that came across her desk.
So the big health care transformation bill is Senate Bill 1580; there’s a house bill that has the same language, number 4153. Senate bill 1581 is the Oregon Education Investment Bill that allows us to build out that transparent, zero-through-20 system. The other one is House Bill 4165, which is the Early Learning Council bill.
I’m hoping that you will help us with these bills. I just want to close by saying that any time you make changes, people get nervous. Everyone wants to change our system of early childhood learning as long as they don’t have to change their program or their funding stream continues to go to their problem and not someone else’s. But at the end of day, we need to step back and stop clinging to programs and figure out how to solve problems for kids. Every year we delay, another 18,000 kids are put on the path to failure because of our inaction. The adults need to stop focusing on their programs and ask ourselves, how can we work together to actually solve these problems.
Sure, we don’t know everything there is to know. John Kennedy didn’t know how to go to the moon in 1962, but they figured it out because they had a destination. And every single year, we need to take another step toward that destination, toward those objectives that I described to you for Oregon.
Teddy Roosevelt once said in a time of decision, the best you can is the right thing; the worst thing you can do is nothing. We’re not going to do nothing here in Oregon. And with your help, we will achieve that vision and we will look back in 2025 to this day, here, in 2012, it began right here, right now, in Oregon. Thank you very much.