Class war in Portland

9:30 am

Portland Public Schools’ student transfer system transfers public investment out of our neediest neighborhoods and hands it to the wealthiest.

The poor are the biggest public school philanthropists in Portland, to the tune of 40 some million dollars a year.

The solution: rebalance enrollment. The Jefferson cluster alone had a net loss of 1,949 students to out-transfers last school year. At a conservative estimate of $5,800 per student, that’s over $11 million of public investment drained from the Jefferson cluster alone.

That’s a lot of money, but more importantly, it robs the cluster of the economies of scale that allow other clusters to offer more curriculum at lower cost.

The other clusters with significant net losses to out-transfers are Marshall (1,441), Roosevelt (1,296) and Madison (1,067).

If we put these students in schools in their neighborhoods, we would not only be able to return comprehensive education afforded by economies of scale, we would also relieve significant overcrowding at schools like Grant, Cleveland and Lincoln.

This solution has been staring district leaders in the face for a long, long time, but they refuse to even speak of it. Why? As far as I can tell, the reasons are two-fold:

  • fear of losing enrollment (they hear from their affluent white friends that they would send their children to private school if this happened) and
  • fear that balancing enrollment and opportunity would mean equalizing downward in white middle class neighborhoods.

In other words, despite the demonstrable harm they are doing to at least half the students of Portland, the perceived risk to their constituency outweighs the clear benefit to the greater common good.

Make no mistake, this is class war, and the only Robin Hoods are the reverse type.

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Steve Rawley published PPS Equity from 2008 to 2010, when he moved his family out of the district.

filed under: Data Crunch, Demographics, Equity, Transfer Policy

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10 Responses

  1. Comment from Terry:

    The solution –returning students to schools in their own neighborhoods– would mean an abrupt about-face on school choice and neighborhood to neighborhood school transfers.

    How likely is that to happen in a district that has embraced neoliberal, market-based school accountability? The prevailing ethos is one in which school performance is judged not just by test scores (which give wealthy students a huge advantage) but also by the number of students a school is able to enroll.

    Such standards are not only absurd, but logically indefensible, especially in an urban public district with a large number of poor and disadvantaged students.

    One can point the finger of blame at district leadership and the school board, but the problem is compounded by the number of concerned, even activist parents who jump at the chance of getting their kids out of poor schools and into ones, far from the neighborhood, with better reputations.

    School choice is a tough nut to crack. That’s why I like Steve Buel’s concrete, first step proposal for radically increasing the number of teachers at the poorest of Portland’s high schools.

    That won’t instantly solve the problem of impoverishing those schools trough out-transfers, but it is a concrete step in the right direction

  2. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Returning students to schools in their neighborhoods is the only way we can afford to do it in a sustainable way.

    If they think they can find the money to keep comprehensive opportunities at high schools with 500-600 students, I’m all ears.

    I’ve never argued for abruptness. But the fact is, we’ve already effectively stopped in-transfers to the most popular schools.

    Now all we have to do is formalize it going forward, with new freshmen entering their neighborhood school (or focus option, in order to maintain choice). Couple this with a guaranteed core of programming, and it would be hard for anybody to make much of a fuss about not being able to transfer out.

    The only thing that is abrupt about this idea is the dawning realization that there is no other way to achieve true equal opportunity given existing revenue streams.

  3. Comment from Whitebuffalo:

    Does the district even acknowledge that the inequality exists? It boggles the mind to think that in our liberal town that such gross inequality would be tolerated for so long.

  4. Comment from Terry:

    Whitebuffalo asks the right question: “Does the district even acknowledge that the inequality exists?

    The answer is yes and no. School board members must realize that gross inequality in educational opportunity exists between poor and wealthy schools. But they seem unwilling to do anything about it.

    The only solution is to change the makeup of the board, beginning with appointing either Nancy Smith or Steve Buel to finish out the term of the departing Dan Ryan.

  5. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    At least three of the current board — Adkins, Williams and Wynde — acknowledge some inequity. But they do little more than wring their hands about it.

    Carole Smith claims “equity” is the over-arching goal of her administration.

    But so far, she hasn’t defined a basic level of education that every student should have access to in every neighborhood school.

    Without that definition, we can expect a lot more hand wringing, but no more than baby steps (if anything) toward true equal opportunity in our schools.

  6. Comment from Terry:

    In addition to Ryan’s departure from the board –hopefully he’ll be replaced by someone like Nancy Smith or Steve Buel– Trudy Sargent and Sonja Henning are up for re-election in the spring, less than a year from now.

    Change will come only with a change in leadership. I think it should be the number one priority of PPS Equity and the Neighborhood Schools Alliance to recruit change candidates for those positions.

    It’s imperative that school activists get the jump on the usual movers and shakers –Stand and the Foundation along with their business backers– and start promoting candidates who will represent the interests of the vast majority of PPS parents.

    The Madison cluster seems to be a hotbed of educational activism. Surely someone can propose a name or two from that zone to replace Sonja Henning.

    I think PPS Equity needs to take the lead, Steve. What do you think? I could even write a guest post citing the urgency of the upcoming election.

  7. Comment from Wes:

    That’s 1,949 kids, almost certainly not the affluent whites you’re complaining about, who get to attend decent schools instead of the crappy institutions in the Jefferson cluster. How is that a bad thing?

    “Class war” is forcing all them uppity poor folk to stay in their own neighborhood, and out of yours.

  8. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Wes has his facts wrong.

    First, the students attending school in the Jefferson cluster are less white and less affluent on average than students living in the Jefferson cluster. That means those transferring out are, in fact, “affluent whites.”

    Second, the institutions in the Jefferson cluster are not “crappy,” they simply offer less opportunity due to the enrollment drain of out-transfers. There are many fine educators working in the Jefferson cluster.

    Finally, I live in the Jefferson cluster, so his last sentence makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

  9. Comment from Marian:

    While I disagree with Wes’s sentiment, he does have a point. “Crappy” is defined as “extremely bad, unpleasant, or inferior; lousy.” Because of the lack of opportunities and low expectations of students in the Jefferson, Madison, and Marshall clusters, despite the fine educators working there, the results are still crappy.

    I’m with you, Steve, on the PPS Equity movement. You’ve raised some of the most thoughtful discussions and backed them up with meaningful data. I think for many of us who are in total agreement, who have fought the PPS machine for years without any positive results, and despite the damage that transferring does, we have limits on how long we can wait for our neighborhood school situation to improve.

    I’m not saying to give up the fight. I’m just saying when you wait for years, fighting for what’s right all along, sometimes you burnout. It’s understandable in such circumstances to look at alternatives–even transferring.

    That said, I still think some of the suggestions posted here might just work. I’m talking about guaranteed core programming at all schools and increasing the number of teachers at poorer schools. I must say that I see no sign of the board and anyone at PPS going for either of these ideas. Perhaps if we get a couple really strong LEADERS on the board to replace Henning and Ryan, something might happen. But right now, the board is just the same old self congratulatory group lacking any courage to tackle the real culprit: funding.

  10. Comment from Terry:

    You agree with me then, Marian, that the the composition of the board needs to change.

    We have an opportunity this summer to see if the “self-congratulatory group” has the courage to appoint a replacement for Ryan who actually believes in equity.

    We also have the opportunity to elect two new board members in less than a year. I say we get cracking. Soon!

    Regarding Wes’s comment, the number of ‘decent’ schools available to accommodate those trapped in ‘crappy’ schools is limited. If the district continues down that road, we might as well close four or five high schools right now and stop the charade.