A challenge for Martín González

As the newest member of the Portland Public Schools board of education, I would like to extend a cordial welcome to Martín González in the form of a challenge on a number of critical issues, in no particular order.

  • High schools: advocate for comprehensive high schools in every neighborhood, with the schools offering the best variety of courses and the most qualified teachers sited in the poorest neighborhoods. This policy, the inverse of the current high school system, would rebuild enrollment and public investment where it is most needed. “Small schools,” as currently implemented, may be offered as a special focus, but should never be substituted for comprehensive schools.
  • Facilities: advocate for building new facilities based on where students live, not where they’ve transferred, a policy of investing in proportion to local student population and encouraging families to stay in (or return to) their neighborhood schools.
  • K8 transition: advocate for a comprehensive middle school option in every neighborhood. K8 schools may be the best option for some students, but they offer dramatically less educational opportunity and are more segregated than middle schools. (Before this transition, every middle school student in PPS had access to a staffed library. Now many do not.) PPS middle grade students assigned to K8 schools are significantly more likely to be non-white and poor than those assigned to middle schools. If any student has a middle school option in their neighborhood, all students should.
  • No Child Left Behind: bring a resolution to the board calling for the repeal of the punitive aspects of this law that unfairly target poor and minority students, and introduce policy directing district administration to de-emphasize assessment in favor of a more rounded, whole-child educational focus.
  • Student transfer and school funding policies: advocate for a school funding policy that would reinvest in schools that have been gutted by out-transfers as a way to bring enrollment back. Introduce policy that would shift our public investment back to where families live, and guarantee a minimum core curriculum (including the arts) in every neighborhood school. If you really want to be bold, propose policy that would limit neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers to those that would not adversely impact socio-economic segregation. That is, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch could basically transfer anywhere, but other students could only transfer into Title I schools, much like the transfer policy in place during the 1980 desegregation plan (but keying on income instead of race).
  • Charter schools: come out strongly for neighborhood schools. Learn from charter school applications what’s missing in our neighborhood schools, and advocate for policy to provide these things in neighborhood schools. The most recent PPS charter school proposal suggests nothing we shouldn’t already be doing in every neighborhood school.

González has a unique opportunity to “audition” for the seat that he will have to win by popular vote in May. How he performs on each of the above issues will signal where he stands with those of us who want school system based on equity of opportunity, where the wealth of a neighborhood does not correspond to the wealth of offerings in its schools.

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


Charter school reflux

The latest charter school to rear its head in north or northeast Portland represents a clear challenge to Portland Public Schools, a challenge they have so far refused to meet.

Nothing proposed by the Emerald Charter’s organizers is anything we shouldn’t get in our neighborhood public schools: community building, respect, excellence, and diversity. (In fact, the charter schools movement by its very nature goes against community building and diversity and will likely never come close to neighborhood schools in those areas.)

But you don’t have to read very far into Emerald’s Web page to see a perfectly reasonable rationale to break away from PPS. “Are we teaching students how to learn,” ask the organizers, “or are we giving them a series of rote exercises to get them through the next series of tests?”

This is exactly the question that many activists have asked, and some have pointed out that the PPS obsession with assessment predates No Child Left Behind. The more recent obsession with the “achievement gap” has ensured that Portland schools, especially in neighborhoods that are not predominately white and middle class, have increasingly focused on preparation for assessment to the detriment of “enrichment” (art, music, P.E., world languages, recess etc.).

Whether or not this focus does anything to help bridge the “achievement gap” (some schools that have done away with test prep entirely have actually shown better progress), it is clearly driving white, middle class families away from their inner north and northeast neighborhood schools. The resulting self-segregation reflects the contemporary sociological phenomenon of people tending to associate almost entirely with people who think, act, and look like them.

I cannot criticize anybody for doing what they think is best for their children — that’s their job as a parent. I want nothing to do with name calling and angry debates about personal choices, but people who believe their charter somehow won’t be part of a regressive social movement — with race as a significant aspect — are sorely misguided and misinformed.

Charter schools are, in fact, a regressive social movement; their promise is illusory. I wrote about this in a Portland Tribune op-ed last winter. Nothing has changed since then.

There is a notion that since PPS has historically failed poor and minority students, these communities should be allowed to take their state education money and take care of themselves. It’s hard to argue with the success of the Self Enhancement Academy’s work with its almost entirely African-American student body (five of 137 students were non-black last year).

But the fact that more black students are enrolled in Self Enhancement than in the other six PPS charter schools combined tells the story of “diversity” in charter schools. Every recent charter school application has promised diversity; none have delivered. Portland’s charter schools represent another form of the self-segregation encouraged by the district’s student transfer policy.

Postmodern identity politics is no way to run a public school system, and it is certainly not what we should be teaching our children.

The PPS board of education must be made to understand this latest charter school as a shot across the bow of the district’s assessment obsession. At least three of the current board (Adkins, Williams and Wynde) appear opposed to new charter schools on principle. But Carole Smith’s administration seems entirely sold on the current edu-speak lingo that says we need to focus on “closing the achievement gap” and “equity of outcomes,” goals that have put us into the vicious cycle of stripping “enrichment” as we chase “achievement” as measured by standardized tests.

If school board members want to head off this kind of challenge to the common schools model, they need to create policy that pulls the district away from assessment mania and creates neighborhood schools that consciously focus on the simple things the Emerald Charter’s organizers talk about.

There is nothing revolutionary in turning away from educational trends that have been disastrous for poor and minority children, not to mention the middle class children who would be their classmates. The PPS board needs to quit waffling on this. They should proclaim NCLB a bad law, and declare assessment obsession a detriment to whole-child learning and a significant contributor to inequity and segregation. It makes no sense to continue creating fertile ground for more charter schools that will drain more families from neighborhood schools.

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