Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Oregon's Politicized School Board Association

The Oregon School Board Association (OSBA) recently unveiled the "Promise of Oregon" campaign, a set of political ads describing the importance of education to Oregon's future.   This campaign is aimed at generating public pressure on the legislature to increase the proportion of funding going to the schools.  Some of you may have been surprised that I voted against endorsing this campaign at our most recent board meeting.   While there are many positive things to say about educating Oregon's children, it makes me a bit uneasy to see the enthusiasm with which school boards around the state are endorsing this particular ad campaign.   We need to keep in mind that the OSBA is largely funded through dues from each school board, which ultimately come from money collected from the taxpayers.   So in effect, this campaign is using taxpayer money to ask for more taxpayer money.   While I don't think any laws are being broken, I really believe such use of taxpayer money for this kind of campaign crosses an ethical line, and is not something we should support.
Think about it for a minute:  if the government can fund organizations which then use their government funding to campaign for increases in their own budget, where does it end?   Many would argue that our spreading crisis of budgets and deficits nationwide is a direct result of the fact that we already provide too many avenues for this snowball effect.  There are too many different ways in which recipients of government money can turn around and use this money in the political process to multiply itself.   We cannot solve it everywhere, but I think it is very important that we try to change this in cases where we can.   If we want to leave sustainable budgets and functional government for our children, we need to try to counter this effect wherever possible.
The OSBA does perform a number of important services for school districts:  it runs annual conferences that are important for learning and networking with other board members, it provides various other forms of training, and it analyzes changing laws to come up with aligned policy recommendations.   So I do think that paying OSBA dues from taxpayer money is reasonable overall.  I can also see some level of legitimate role for the OSBA in the political process:  I would expect the OSBA to do some global analysis of the common interests and effects of state laws on the individual districts, and communicate these to the relevant lawmakers.   But because taxpayer money is involved, I think we need to limit this to simple communication of information and testimony at relevant legislative hearings.   A multimedia lobbying campaign is something that should be done by an associated PAC using collected voluntary contributions, rather than direct use of taxpayer money.
This campaign is also especially worrying in conjunction with the increasing use of the OSBA to advance partisan political causes.   In the past year we have also seen:
  • A set of official legislative priorities which includes keeping Oregon charter school laws weak, and eliminating our "kicker" tax refunds.   Both of these are causes that are espoused by one end of our political spectrum, and on which mainstream Oregonians, including solid supporters of education in general, are of many opinions.
  • The OSBA handed over a major session of the 2014 summer conference for advocacy of the ill-advised "Oregon Opportunity Initiative".  This wasn't just a passing mention:  this keynote session by State Treasurer Ted Wheeler was devoted entirely to advocating this measure and enlisting the attending school board members in its support, without a hint of an opposing view.   The extreme nature of this initiative is demonstrated by the fact that even in a landslide Democrat election year in Oregon, this Democrat-endorsed measure solidly lost. 
With the OSBA taking strong positions on these controversial political causes, I think we need to tread very carefully when encouraging this organization to start spending taxpayer-derived dues on political ads.   While our board did outvote me to endorse the Promise of Oregon campaign, I was happy to see that the majority joined me in a vote against the OSBA's legislative priorities.  As a board member, I believe we need to continue looking more skeptically at OSBA activities, and challenge them directly in cases where they are venturing too far beyond their core duties and spending taxpayer money on one-sided politics.   Be sure to inform your school board members or OSBA representatives if you agree.

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