Jeff Merkley on the costs of political paralysis

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Friday, August 26, 2011

At 15, Savannah Loberger is a fresh bouquet of energy and optimism. The daughter of a Marine Corps officer (her mother, I might add), Loberger designed a five-day science-and-technology camp for 37 girls this summer at Hillsboro High School.

Her idealism, her belief in the possible, surely inspired some nostalgia in Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., who celebrated the junior Friday morning at the Hilhi engineering lab. When he interned for Mark O. Hatfield in the U.S. Senate 35 years ago, Merkley possessed a similar faith in the good work he had left to do.

With what remains of that conviction, Merkley will move this fall to rewrite the education act known as No Child Left Behind, increasing funding for K-12 science, engineering and technology by $500 million annually over 10 years. If Merkley succeeds, he will knock down quite a few barriers for the teenagers who want to follow Savannah into the engineering classroom and the computer lab.

As that's a monumental "if," it's hard not to contrast the kinetic energy in Loberger's arena with the sullen animosity on Capitol Hill.

In her world, everything is possible. In Merkley's chamber of horrors, virtually nothing is.

During several other Portland stops Friday, including Oregon Public Broadcasting's "Think Out Loud" and lunch at Elemental Technologies, Merkley fleshed out his dilemma .. and ours. "The Senate is absolutely paralyzed," he notes. That august body lacks a social contract -- maturity -- and social contact.

"We often ask why they can't get their act together in Iraq and Afghanistan," Merkley adds, fresh back from the war zone in Afghanistan. "We've had 200 years and we're still trying to get the House and the Senate to work better."

In that setting, and this recession, engineering an agreement on any issue -- even the education and job training of the next generation -- is problematic. At the very least, Merkley says, "We have to overcome the attitude of those who want nothing to get to the president's desk because they think that's the best way to win in the next presidential cycle."

That line forms behind Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "He has said his top goal is to prevent Obama from getting elected," Merkley says, "and that translates into blocking anything that would help the economy."

Let's not underestimate the corrosive fallout of business as usual. Loberger's "Girls Get IT" camp was awfully cool, as was a similar science sabbatical at Pacific University, but they only serve to remind us -- said Don Domes, Hilhi's technology guru -- that 99.6 percent of the students on Portland's west side didn't have similar opportunity.

"America graduates less than 8 percent of the engineers in the world," Domes said. "If we don't design it here, what is the chance we will build it here? And if we don't build things here, what are the impacts for our economy?"

In the last three years, the budget for the Oregon University System program that pulls high-school students into engineering and applied science classes has been cut from $1.1 million to $800,000.

"I have often said follow the money, and you will see what is truly important," Domes said.

No more than a dozen Oregon high schools offer pre-engineering and computer science programs, said OUS' Bruce Schafer. That at a time when Intel now hires four times as many job candidates packing a doctorate than those with a basic B.A.

"Our education system hasn't caught up to this reality," said Intel's Morgan Anderson. "We need to hire Ph.D.'s, and we're struggling to get students excited to go to college."

Savannah Loberger is excited, and Merkley found her enthusiasm captivating and contagious. If he can harness that energy and persuade the Senate to invest in students with her ingenuity and resolve, Merkley estimates he would add $5 million annually to technology and engineering programs in Oregon high schools.

"She reinforces my determination to carry the fight," Merkley said. She reminds him of the Hatfield intern who decided, so many years ago, that the world of politics offered him a chance to do the world some good.

--Steve Duin