Ron Saxton, the Republican candidate for governor, says he learned a valuable lesson this week: Don't assume. The lesson stems from a Portland Tribune article published Tuesday that detailed how Saxton and his family moved in 1996 from their Southeast Portland home to a Southwest Portland apartment so their son could attend Lincoln High School.
The Saxtons made the move to allow their son to participate in Lincoln's International Baccalaureate program - an advanced course offered nowhere else in Portland at the time.
Before moving, the Saxtons requested a transfer admission. But due to crowding at Lincoln, a lottery was in effect. When their son's name wasn't selected, the family moved temporarily into Lincoln's attendance area.
The Tribune article also revealed that a few months after the move, Saxton filed to run for the Portland school board listing his family's permanent Southeast Portland address.
Saxton said this week that the family's move was not a secret at the time and that he discussed his candidate filing and the fact that he had two home addresses with elections officials and community and school leaders - even the media.
Ten years later, Saxton claims surprise that his family's move is considered important. Going forward, he says he won't make assumptions.
Candidates can learn from episode
The controversy illustrates important lessons for all candidates.
First, past actions remain with you and frequently deserve explanation. Second, voters and community leaders change over time. They can't be expected to know about or understand the past.
But the larger public issue concerns the two main gubernatorial candidates' views about public education. In debating the topic, it isn't good enough for a candidate to simply make statements or offer opinions. Candidates must clearly explain what they mean and why it's important for the state's future.
Some critics may say the Saxtons' personal wealth allowed them to unfairly work the system. Gov. Ted Kulongoski and others have suggested so this week. Those statements reflect either misplaced political rhetoric, citizen frustrations about how we educate our state's children or legitimate concerns about a candidate's transparency.
Greater leadership needed on education
The fact that the Saxtons and many other families move to provide a better public education for their children describes a sad inequity in Oregon: The state's schools are not equal.
To change that, it is time to stop simply debating how much money we spend on education and instead turn our complete attention to how we can make public education the best it can be for all Oregon students - no matter where they live.
Saxton thinks one answer is open enrollment, allowing students to attend any public school in Oregon regardless of where their home is. Kulongoski offers other ideas, including more school funding.
What we don't see is enough leadership on the matter from either candidate for governor, or the host of candidates running for the Oregon Legislature in the Nov. 7 election.
It's tough for a candidate to fully define in five weeks how he or she would change something as complex as Oregon's public schools. But there is plenty of time for candidates - especially Saxton and Kulongoski - to lead with something more than mere rhetoric about inadequate funding or the need for greater efficiency.
They instead must explain clearly why their views are important and specifically what they would do to achieve measurable, positive outcomes for Oregon's future.