Defining equity

The biggest problem with Carole Smith’s “equity administration” is that no leaders in Portland Public Schools are willing to define a base level of curriculum that every child is entitled to, in every neighborhood school.

This is fundamental to working toward equity.

Without this definition, district leaders are free to talk about equity at every opportunity, but can avoid actually taking meaningful steps toward it.

Equity immediately achievable

This much is true: it is immediately possible, with available funding, to offer equal educational opportunity in every neighborhood school, simply by having kids go to school in their neighborhoods.

I’m not talking about cookie cutter schools, or replicating programs like Benson in every neighborhood. I’m talking about every child guaranteed an education with a common K-12 core curriculum, ideally including library, music, art, science, math, language arts, social studies, health and world languages.

This is what our neighbors in Beaverton get, through a combination of an extremely strict transfer policy, relatively large schools, and a clearly defined core curriculum. You can walk into any neighborhood school in Beaverton and find a common level of what PPS calls “enrichment,” regardless of the income level or ethnic makeup of the neighborhood.

Contrast this with Portland, where schools vary dramatically, and race, income and address are the best predictors of the kind of opportunity available to students.

We don’t need 2000-student high schools to do this, but we clearly can’t do it in 600-student high schools with the existing funding formula.

While the size of Beaverton’s schools may rankle many idealists, I personally would rather have a large institution with smaller and more classes than a smaller institution with larger and fewer classes.

Details can vary, of course. But we must have a centrally-defined core curriculum, or we will never see equity. And we need to return to neighborhood-based enrollment to achieve the economy of scale necessary to pay for this.

Baby steps not working

Ask yourself how much equity we’ve gotten since it was declared the “over-arching” goal of current leadership.

So far, the “baby steps” approach has seen continued enrollment drains and FTE cuts in our poorest schools. There has been neither talk nor action on addressing the enrollment drain, i.e. the transfer policy, or the FTE cuts, i.e. the staffing formula.

Our schools continue to become more segregated, with dramatic differences in curriculum between white, middle class schools and poor and minority schools. These differences become especially stark and intolerable at the secondary level.

Poor and minority middle school students are disproportionately likely to be assigned to PK8 schools, where they are more likely to be deprived of libraries (nearly a third of PK8 schools completely lack library staff) and the kind of curriculum breadth available at comprehensive middle schools, where white, middle class students are more likely to be assigned (and which all have at least some library staff).

This pattern continues in high school, with white, middle class students generally assigned to comprehensive schools with broad curriculum, and poor and minority students overwhelmingly assigned to “small schools” with far less opportunity.

District leaders refuse action for fear of alienating middle class

By taking the transfer policy off the table, leaders seem to have convinced themselves that we can’t afford a common curriculum. To speak of it would be to acknowledge that we indeed have the means to solve the equity crisis, but won’t, for fear harming the neighborhoods that benefit when district policy siphons enrollment, funding and opportunity out of North, Northeast and outer Southeast Portland.

This unspoken fear — that we will alienate a few hundred middle class white families if we take bold steps toward equity — is unfounded and ironic, especially considering the number of families I personally know who have pulled their children from PPS, or plan to for secondary school, precisely because they cannot receive a fair shake in their neighborhood schools.

It is unethical to maintain current policy based on this fear. How can we deprive at least half of our students of opportunity to benefit the other half?

I don’t believe there is anybody currently on the school board who has both the conviction and the courage — it takes both — to come to the table with policy proposals that will even begin to address this issue.

Terry Olson is right; we need to start working toward electing three strong leaders to school board zones four, five and six in May. We need bold leadership in times of crisis, and we’re not getting it from the current crop of school board directors.

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