Knute Buehler aims to position himself as Oregon’s education governor and the reformer of the Public Employee Retirement System.
The orthopedic surgeon and Republican state representative from Bend challenging Democrat Gov. Kate Brown in the November election swung through Eastern Oregon this week. From Tuesday through Friday, he and his team held meet-and-greets and other campaign events in six counties and nine cities, including Burns, Ontario and La Grande. Buehler stopped Thursday afternoon in Pendleton for an hour-long discussion with the East Oregonian editorial board.
Buehler stressed Oregon needs more and better leadership, and it starts with education.
“I think the single biggest failure of Gov. Brown is her indifference to our public schools,” he said.
Oregon schools rank in the bottom five across crucial metrics, he said, namely length of school year and graduation rates. And that is occurring while state revenues are at a robust $2 billion. Too much of that money, he said, is paying for PERS.
Buehler said as governor he could move Oregon schools from the bottom five to the top five in five years. He proposes increasing K-12 funding a minimum of 15 percent in the next two bienniums. But that push only comes if lawmakers deliver meaningful, bipartisan PERS and health insurance reforms.
“I won’t sign a new spending bill until I have PERS reform on my desk,” Buehler said.
His plan would cap the salary to calculate pension benefits at $100,000 a year going forward, require government employees to contribute to their retirements and enroll new government workers into 401(k)-type accounts. Those and other PERS changes would save $1.2 billion every two years, Buehler said, which he plans to use to help teachers and students.
Pushing more dollars into classrooms is only part of the education package. Oregon students attend 165 days of school a year. By the time they graduate high school, that adds up to one year less education than a student in Washington state. Oregon needs a 180-day school year, he said, which is the national average.
That may be the biggest carrot in the package for the urban voter. Buehler said he doesn’t know a suburban mom who would not welcome the longer school year.
His plan might get a hard look from Eastern Oregon locals because it also calls for five-day school weeks. Pilot Rock, Stanfield and Morrow County schools all have four-day school weeks. Still, with the “R” behind his name, Buehler is expected to carry this side of the state.
But delivering on schools and PERS reforms will take more than winning in November. Buehler would have to convince the Legislature, which looks to remain under Democratic control for the foreseeable future.