Budget bright side: time for a reset

8:35 pm

For two years I have argued that Portland Public Schools needs to balance enrollment in order to pay for programmatic, geographic equity in our schools. With poor schools already cut to the bone, the budget crisis may force the issue.

Carole Smith has now acknowledged to the school board, in a roundabout way, that we may no longer be able to afford the “smallness” we’ve designed into our schools: K8’s and small high school academies.

“In recent years, we’ve … supported small high schools with additional staff, and added assistant principals, algebra teachers and counselors for most K-8 schools. Can we afford to continue those initiatives?”

What she didn’t say is that even with this extra funding, students in small high schools and K8s have dramatically less opportunity than students in comprehensive high schools and middle schools.

As implemented in PPS, “smallness” is massively inefficient and more expensive than comprehensive schools, where cohort sizes in the hundreds afford significantly more opportunity for less money.

These failed experiments have contributed to the ill-effects of another failed experiment: the free market student transfer policy. This policy entered a death spiral years ago; now comprehensive secondary education has been virtually eliminated from the poorest half of the district, while transfer slots into comprehensive schools have all but dried up.

Students left in these schools suffer a general and wide-spread dearth of electives, instrumental music, college prep classes, civics, after school activities, and even science, math and literature.

Just as the free market banking crisis has succeeded in nothing more or less than transferring massive amounts of wealth upwards, the PPS transfer policy continues to transfer thousands of students and tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year.

We can’t fix the transfer policy without a coherent, equitable and balanced system of PK-12 schools. But we can’t afford comprehensive programs without the enrollment to pay for them.

And no matter what we do, the district faces large budget cuts.

So what can we do?

Just as with the global banking system, it’s time for a reset. We need to imagine a system that, no matter how lean, is no leaner in one part of Portland than another.

The budget crisis may force the district to do what I’ve been asking them to do for two years: restore comprehensive high schools at Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt. Re-open closed middle schools in those clusters, too.

More importantly, the district may be forced to balance enrollment — that is, curtail neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers — to pay for programmatic equity in every part of Portland.

It is a budget-neutral way to increase programming — or stave off cuts — for our schools serving our most vulnerable students. We must imagine a system where the poor don’t bear the greatest brunt of budget cuts, as they have in Portland since Measure 5.

The bright side of this budget crisis is that we have the opportunity to design a balanced system of schools, where you cannot tell the wealth of the neighborhood by the number of classes in the high school’s catalog.

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

filed under: Budget, Equity, High Schools, Jefferson High, K-8 Transistion, Madison High, Marshall High, Middle Schools, Program cuts, Roosevelt High, Small Schools, Transfer Policy

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4 Responses

  1. Comment from Rita Moore:

    I completely agree. Although the downside to this current economic crisis is formidable, there is also a huge potential upside if we’re willing to seize the moment, both locally and nationally.

    I desperately hope that this Oregon will finally have a serious, rational discussion of the entire tax system. This is not an expenditure problem; it is a revenue problem. Even in the good times, we don’t have anything close to enough resources to perform essential state services. Moreover, as more and more people get swept up in the chaos, maybe we’ll start to realize that we all need the safety net.

    As far as the enrollment and transfer mess, the argument against changing the transfer policy at all over the years is that without choice the middle class will vote with their feet and leave the district, either moving or sending their kids to private schools. In the face of real estate meltdown, mortgage chaos, and looming unemployment, I don’t think that threat holds any water any more, if it ever did.

    Now is precisely the time to revamp the transfer policy, balance enrollments, and invest in the under-resourced schools, and reverse the Phillips-era reforms that have proven ineffective and fiscally irresponsible.

    In the immortal words of Rahm Emanuel, “Never let a crisis go to waste.”

  2. Comment from Ken:

    Quoting “the immortal words of Rahm Emanuel” gives us some insight as to where the current administration intends to go in the realm of “reform.” Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, recently told the American Council on Education that: “Taken together, the Barack effect, the leadership on the Hill, the proven strategies, and the money in the stimulus package represent what I call the perfect storm for reform…” However, I urge you all to take a closer look at how the Federal funds will be directed. Most notably, at least $7.5 of the money set aside in the “State Fiscal Stabilization” fund will be directed explicitly by Duncan – and this money is tied to the State willing to adhere to some of the provisions in the America COMPETES Act of 2007 (passed by Bush with widespread bipartisan support, including Senator Obama). Believe it or not, the America COMPETES Act resembles No Child Left Behind on steroids – even higher standards, longitudinal testing data (tying student scores to teachers – high stakes testing for us in addition to our children), and aligning “the requirements, standards, and assessments with the knowledge and skill necessary for the success in academic credit-bearing coursework in postsecondary education, in the 21st century workforce, and in the Armed Forces without the need for remediation.” Part of Duncan’s $7.5 billion prize includes $650,000,000 for an “Innovation Fund,” which contains the language designed to funnel money to corporate charter schools (KIPP, Green Dot, etc) obsessed with “scientifically-based” education programs (Scott, Foresman and fellow leveled reading programs). There will be far less funding for local charter schools. Keep in mind that many education thinktanks are advocating for mayoral takeover of school districts, robbing the local population of democratically-elected school boards.

    Economic conditions are rarely used to further strengthen democracy; rather, they often open up options for centralization and consolidation of power.

  3. Comment from Rita:

    Thanks for the information on the strings attached to the potential education funds in the proposed stimulus package, Ken. I was unaware of these details. The more I learn of this package the more outraged I become.

    To your larger point about crises usually making things worse, I don’t disagree. Naomi Klein’s recent book on Disaster Capitalism lays out in vivid detail numerous examples of how crises have been manipulated to further economic exploitation and political control.

    Nor do I have any illusions about our current crisis. I think there are grave dangers. Not least because so many of Obama’s advisors come from the U of Chicago and Wall Street.

    But there are also great opportunities. It all depends on what you do with the crisis. I don’t necessarily endorse what Emanuel does, but I do endorse his activist attitude.

    For the first time since the 1930s, we have a real opportunity to change a system that is light years behind the rest of the industrialized world in social policies and standard of living.

    But the powers that be are certainly not going to have that revelation on their own. FDR needed the spectre of socialist revolution to push through the New Deal. That would be a tough sell these days, but we can certainly get a lot more activist than we have been to date. At the same time, a lot more people will be mobilizable if there is something to mobilize around.

    Locally, I think we can use the current economic crisis to undo some of the most egregious examples of social and economic injustice, like the state’s profoundly regressive tax structure and PPS’s institionalized inequality, among others.

    But we’re going to have to ramp up our activism considerably –and soon — or this window will slam shut and we will indeed be much worse off than before.

  4. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    Good points, Ken and Rita. I don’t mean to sound overly optimistic (rarely have I been accused of that); I’m merely pointing out that circumstance may dictate some of the moves I’ve been advocating for years in PPS.

    Likewise nationally, we may end up nationalizing our banking and finance system — at least temporarily — in order to avoid complete collapse. (Once again, capitalism can only survive if socialism will save it.)

    The open question is: How much of this socialism will be preserved (and for how long) once the crisis is averted? We got the beginnings of a modern social safety net out of the New Deal, but now all we’ve got are tattered remains.

    The situation in our schools should be more hopeful. Public schools are, after all, social-democratic institutions.

    Now that The Market has definitively proven itself catastrophically inept at anything but the one-way transfer of wealth, we should be able to dispense with any talk of market-oriented policies governing the distribution of our public investment.