Monday, January 25, 2016

Children As Political Pawns

At our last board meeting, we received an update on the School Based Health Centers (SBHCs).  These contain a number of very dedicated, hardworking employees, who help students deal with health issues and provide important services to those who find it difficult to visit a regular doctor.

However, there were some elements of their presentation that worried me a bit.   Here is their description of the "Awareness Day" they had arranged:

Awareness Day is put on by the Oregon School Based Health Alliance, in coordination with Oregon Health Authority and facilitated by the Oregon State Youth Advisory Council. It is a day where all the student groups from across the state head  to the Capitol Building and help to build awareness regarding the importance of  School Based Health Centers.
This day involved:
• Contacting and setting up appointment times with multiple State Representatives and Senators
• Prepping SHAC group members to make speeches to legislators about the importance of SBHCs
• Students prepared elaborate gift baskets for legislators
• Coordination of all administrative needs for the day (permission slips for all school districts, bus schedule, chaperones from each school that were present on the day, all forms and registration....)

This seems like a clear case of a political lobbying activity:   the staff members openly admit that their goal is to influence state funding, they train and coach the students to speak to lawmakers, they actually help them prepare "gift baskets" (borderline bribes?), and do all the coordination to make the lobbying as easy as possible for the students.

When I brought this up at the meeting, the staff's defense was that this is about "teaching leadership", and since there is no specific bill on the table that they are advocating, it's not political lobbying, and thus not a policy violation.   Do you find this convincing?   I don't see any way we can consider this anything other than a use of school and SBHC resources to influence politics.    Here is the relevant portion of policy GBG, which I believe this "Awareness Day" violates:

All District employees are privileged within the limitations imposed by state and federal laws and regulations to choose any side of a particular issue and to support their viewpoints as they desire by vote, discussion, or persuading others. Such discussion and persuasion, however, will not be carried on during the performance of District duties, except in open discussion during classroom lessons that consider various candidates for a particular office or various sides of a particular political or civil issue.
On all political issues, employees must designate that the viewpoints they represent on the issues are personal and are not to be interpreted as the District’s official viewpoint.
No employee will use District facilities, equipment, or supplies in connection with his/her campaigning, nor will he/she use any time during the working day for campaign purposes. 

In addition, I find it kind of scary that "teaching leadership" is defined as political lobbying to increase funding for your special interest.  Shouldn't "leaders" be learning to carefully examine both sides of the issues?   Perhaps student health outcomes would be best served by redirecting some SBHC funding to athletic programs or to healthier cafeteria food-- but the Awareness Day groups are organized by SBHC staff to be dedicated to a single focus, lobbying on behalf of the SBHCs.

In a more global sense, this also seems to be yet another case of using your tax money to lobby for more of your tax money, which I have criticized before.     Again, this is a very bad slippery slope for us to be sliding down.   Any of the people involved can advocate for SBHC funding on their own time from somewhere off campus, but when you form a club on district grounds, using school and SBHC resources,  you are implicitly using public resources, aside from any direct money spent on this activity.

In any case, the rest of the board did not seem to have much appetite for pursuing this issue- so no further action is likely unless YOU (the public) demand it.   Thus, if you also believe this use of SBHC resources and of a staff-run student club crosses an ethical line,  please email the superintendent and board ( /, call the district at 503-844-1500, or come speak during the public comment period at an upcoming board meeting.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Insulting The Poor

At the school board meeting Tuesday night, we passed an official statement of HSD's list of legislative priorities for this year, our set of requests to the state legislature.   I was happy to see that we were able to pass the amendment I proposed, adding our opposition to Oregon's proposed minimum wage increase.    I was a little disturbed, though, by one of the arguments put forth against this amendment:   that we have a lot of students living under the poverty line, and our statement against a minimum wage increase might be insensitive or insulting to that population.

Why do many of us oppose minimum wage increases?    Of course if you are living in a bubble and listening only to minimum wage proponents, the reasoning is simple:  those who support a minimum wage increase care about the poor, and those who don't care only about the rich.    But if you have been paying attention to the many arguments over the minimum wage that have been circulating the news media and the web over the past few years  (I won't even bother linking specific ones, there are so many!), you can see that there are many reasons why this increase might potentially hurt the very people it is designed to help:
  • Incurring real costs for public-service-providing bodies, such as school districts
  • Creating a disincentive for businesses to hire, increasing unemployment
  • Increasing the cost structure of struggling businesses, resulting in more business failures, concentrated among the very businesses that hire minimum-wage workers
  • Motivating more automation for low-skill jobs, leaving unskilled workers less employable
You may have decided that these reasons are overblown, or that you think the supposed positive effects of the minimum wage increase would counterbalance these.   But you can't dismiss these arguments out of hand:   these are serious arguments put forth by well-intended businessmen, politicians, and economists, pointing to many ways in which the minimum wage increase theoretically might not be good for the poor.

If you say that opposing the minimum wage increase is insulting or insensitive to the poor, you are effectively saying that those below the poverty line are not intelligent enough to understand the arguments above.    You are effectively implying that they can only understand the minimum-wage-advocate talking points about minimum wage increases helping the poor, and cannot seriously engage with the substantive arguments on both sides of this very important issue, or understand that many of us seriously believe the minimum wage increase would hurt, not help, them.

Isn't that the biggest insult of all? 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Chromebooks and Student Privacy

At recent board meetings and district presentations, you have probably noticed that we are continuing to increase the use of technology in our schools where applicable, such as in the latest revisions to the high school math curriculum.    Some parents have raised concerns about possible loss of privacy, or harvesting of student data by large companies:  this article from the Jewish World Review provides a good summary of these concerns.   I have asked Superintendent Scott and Chief Information Officer Don Wolff for their response to the article.   They seem to have a pretty good answer, indicating that Oregon provides protections above and beyond the basic contract with Google:

I think the article is accurate and on point on a lot of it’s arguments. What it doesn’t address is that Oregon has an agreement with Google not to collect, store, and save information around students when using the core components of the Google products. In addition, the state has passed Senate Bill 187 which requires vendors to adhere to certain privacy stipulations that does not allow them to track and use student data other than for the enhancement of educational features. Information can’t be sold or used for advertising or marketing. 

We do know that apps outside of the core applications provided, like Youtube and Maps, do allow them to collect information on how those applications are being used and to enhance the usefulness of them. But also, these applications will fall under SB187 when it takes affect July 2016. 

The information collected from Google outside of the core education applications is anonymized and used for the optimization of the tools. Not targeted at advertising to students. 

Thus, it looks to me like we have some relatively good protection for student privacy when using Chromebooks and related software.   As always, we need to keep vigilant, and keep in mind that when we allow a state agency to supervise our children for a large part of the day, there will always be inherent risks to privacy.   But based on the information above, I'm not too worried about the classroom use of Chromebooks significantly increasing that risk.