Category: Blog

The end of the line

It is with both sadness and a sense of great relief that I tell you this will be the final post on PPS Equity. [Here's Nancy's farewell.]For two years we have documented inequities in Portland’s largest school district and advocated for positive change.  Along the way, we’ve explored how to use new media tools to influence public policy and foster a more inclusive form of democracy.

The reason for this shutdown is simple: we are moving our family out of the district, and will no longer be stakeholders. A very large part of our decision to leave is the seeming inability of Portland Public Schools to provide access to comprehensive secondary education to all students in all parts of the city. We happen to live in a part of town — the Jefferson cluster — which is chronically under-enrolled, underfunded and besieged by administrative incompetence and neglect. We have no interest in playing a lottery with our children’s future, and no interest in sending our children out of their neighborhood for a basic  secondary education. These are the options for roughly half of the families in the district if they want comprehensive 6-12 education for their children.

While there are some signs that the district may want to provide comprehensive high schools for all, there is little or no acknowledgment of the ongoing middle grade crisis. If the district ever gets around to this, it will be too late for my children, and thousands of others who do not live in Portland’s elite neighborhoods on the west side of the river or in parts of the Grant and Cleveland clusters.

It cannot be understated that the failure of PPS to provide equally for all students in all parts of the district is rooted in Oregon’s horribly broken school funding system, which entered crisis mode with 1990′s Measure 5. A segregated city, declining enrollment and a lack of stable leadership and vision made things especially bad in Portland.

But Portland’s elites soon figured out how to keep things decent in their neighborhoods. The Portland Schools Foundation was founded to allow wealthy families to directly fund their neighborhood schools. Student transfers were institutionalized, allowing students and funding to flow out of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods and shore up enrollment and funding in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  Modest gains for Portland’s black community realized in the 1980s were reversed as middle schools were closed and enrollment dwindled. A two-tiered system, separate and radically unequal, persists 20 years after Measure 5 and nearly 30 years after the Black United Front’s push for justice in the delivery of public education.

PPS seems to be at least acknowledging this injustice. Deputy Superintendent Charles Hopson laid it out to the City Club of Portland last October: “It is a civil rights violation of the worst kind… when based on race and zip code roughly 85% of white students have access to opportunity in rigorous college prep programs, curriculum and resources compared to 27% of black students.”

Despite this acknowledgment, the district is only addressing this inequity in the final four years of a K-12 system. We don’t, in fact, have a system, but a collection of schools that vary significantly in terms of size, course offerings, and teacher experience, often correlating directly to the wealth of the neighborhoods in which they sit.

As the district embarks on their high school redesign plan, which is largely in line with my recommendations, predictable opposition has arisen.

Some prominent Grant families rose up, first in opposition to boundary changes that might affect their property values, then to closing Grant, then to closing any schools. (They seem to have gone mostly quiet after receiving assurances from school board members that their school was safe from closure. Perhaps they also realized that they have more to fear if no schools are closed, since it would mean the loss of close to 600 students at Grant if students and funding were spread evenly among ten schools. In that scenario, the rich educational stew currently enjoyed at Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson will be a thinned out to a thin gruel. It would be an improvement for the parts of town that long ago lost their comprehensive high schools, but a far cry from what our surrounding suburban districts offer with the exact same per-student state funding.)

There is also opposition from folks who reflexively oppose school closures, many of them rightly suspicious of the district’s motivations with regards to real estate dealings and their propensity to target poor neighborhoods for closures.

Finally, there is opposition on the school board from the two non-white members, Martín González and Dilafruz Williams.

González’s opposition appears to stem from the valid concern that the district doesn’t have a clue how to address the achievement gap — the district can’t even manage to spend all of its Title I money, having carried over almost $3 million from last year — and that there is little in the high school plan that addresses this. (It’s unclear how he feels about the clear civil rights violation of unequal access this plan seeks to address. It seems to me we should be able to address both ends of the problem — inputs and outcomes — at the same time . The failure to address the achievement gap should not preclude providing equal opportunity. It’s the least we can do.)

Williams noted that she doesn’t trust district administrators to carry out such large scale redesign, especially in light of the bungled K-8 transition which she also opposed. It’s hard to argue with that position; the administration has done little to address the distrust in the community stemming from many years of turbulent and destructive changes focused mainly in low-income neighborhoods.

But more significantly, Williams has long opposed changing the student transfer system on the grounds that it would constitute “massive social engineering” to return to a neighborhood-based enrollment policy. Ironically, nobody on the school board has articulated the shameful nature of our two-tiered system more clearly and forcefully as Williams. But as one of only two non-whites on the board, Williams also speaks as one of the most outwardly class-conscious school board members. In years past, she has said that many middle class families tell her they would leave the district if the transfer policy were changed.

(Note to director Williams: Here’s one middle class family that’s leaving because of the damage the transfer policy has done to our neighborhood schools. And it’s too bad the district can’t have a little more concern for working class families. I know quite a few parents of black and brown children who have pulled their kids from the district due to its persistent institutional classism and racism.)

Williams (along with many of her board colleagues) has also long blamed the federal No Child Left Behind Act for the massive student outflows from our poorest schools, but this is a smokescreen. Take Jefferson High for example, which was redesigned in part to reset the clock on NCLB sanctions. Yet despite this, the district has continued to allow priority transfers out. Jefferson has lost vastly more funding to out-transfers than the modest amount of Title I money it currently receives.  If we don’t take Title I money, we don’t have to play by NCLB rules. (This is not a radical concept; the district has chosen this course at Madison High.)

It is hard to have a great deal of hope for Portland Public Schools, despite some positive signals from superintendent Carole Smith. We continue to lack a comprehensive vision for a K-12 system. English language learners languish in a system that is chronically out of compliance with federal civil rights law. The type of education a student receives continues to be predictable by race, class and ZIP code. Special education students are warehoused in a gulag of out-of-sight contained classrooms and facilities, and their parents must take extreme measures to assure even their most basic rights. Central administration, by many accounts, is plagued by a dysfunctional culture that actively protects fiefdoms and obstructs positive change. Many highly influential positions are now held by non-educators, and there is more staff in the PR department than in the curriculum department. Recent teacher contract negotiations showed a pernicious anti-labor bias and an apparent disconnect between Carole Smith and her staff. Principals are not accountable to staff, parents or the community, and are rarely fired. Positions are created for unpopular principals at the central office, and retired administrators responsible for past policy failures are brought back on contract to consult on new projects.

If there is a hope for the district, it lies in community action of the kind taken by the Black United Front in 1980. The time for chronicling the failures of the district is over.

In his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”

I think this Web site has served to establish injustice. Many of us have tried to work with the district, serving on committees, testifying at board meetings, and attending community meetings. My family has brought tens of thousands of dollars in grant money and donations to the district, dedicated countless volunteer hours, and spent many evenings and weekends gathering and analyzing data.

There is no doubt that injustices exist, and there is no doubt that we have tried to negotiate. It’s time for self-purification — the purging of angry and violent thoughts — and direct action. It’s time to get off the blogs and take to the streets.

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

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Blog anniversary season

For some reason, we seem to like starting new blogs in February in my household. Wacky Mommy started her blogging back in February of 2005, and started hitting on school politics right off the bat.

A year later, I started my own blog. But it wasn’t until February 2007 that I started ranting (anonymously) about school politics there (warning: salty language).

As school politics gradually took over my blog — and big chunks of my free time — my kids were growing up. My eldest started bugging me about writing mostly school stuff on a blog called “More Hockey Less War.”

So in February 2008, I started this blog. I had no idea what to expect. Two years hence, it’s become much more than my personal soap box.

I didn’t initially aspire to reinvent journalism. But somewhere along the way it became clear that I was doing work on this Web site that mainstream commercial media were increasingly neglecting. It’s not that I’m doing something better than the pros. It’s that nobody’s paying the pros to do what they should be doing. I think it’s fair to say we’ve been covering a story that The Oregonian has consistently missed — or chosen to ignore — for two decades.

I also never aspired to be a celebrity spokesmodel for school equity, or a public figure of any kind.

But I live by an informal creed: If I see injustice and do not speak, am I not complicit?

I’ve been speaking out, for the sake of my children as much as for the greater common good. But when I’m spending time researching, interviewing, writing, fact checking and editing instead of reading with my kids or playing music, there’s a fundamental disconnect in my values, or at least an imbalance. In the words of Bob Dylan, “Lost time is not found again.”

This is all a long way of saying: expect changes around here in the coming year. I want to keep PPS Equity around, but I also want to take a step back from its day-to-day operations. I believe Portland needs an independent, critical voice covering this beat, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible here.

There are a few options I’m exploring for the future, but none are definite. One thing is for certain: readers contribute more to this site than me. So I have no doubt that it will continue in some form or another.

Stay tuned, and stay in touch.

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

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…we’re back!

The power outage that shut down BESC also shut down the company that provides critical services (DNS) for this site. Things appear to be running smoothly at the moment, though I have not had a chance to catch up on e-mail.

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

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On the blogs: a flurry of new posts

Lili Taylor has been busy over break at Cheating in School, with new and informative posts on Title I and No Child Left Behind, some history on the closure and demolition of Whitaker Middle School, the history of PPS’ ongoing noncompliance with Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and more.

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

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The Manifesto

I’m feeling discouraged. The district seems to be once again careening from crisis to crisis, from an unresolved teachers’ contract, to an unfinished, perhaps unfinishable K8 transition, to charter schools preying on the empty buildings left in the wake of destructive enrollment policies. We’re embarking on an ambitious high school system redesign that appears headed in the right direction with regard to balancing enrollment geographically and providing equity of opportunity, but trust in the community is low.

When everything seems to be blowing up, it’s useful to make a list. So I came up with the PPS Equity Manifesto. There’s nothing on this list that we can’t do; there’s nothing there that costs money. In fact, it will save money. In a way, this is a distillation of all the discussions we’ve had on this and other blogs over the last couple years. Comments are open on the manifesto page. I’d love your feedback.

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

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On moderation of discussions

Things have been lively at PPS Equity lately. Chalk it up to growing pains (readership suddenly doubled and comments went through the roof a a few weeks ago), but I’ve had to become a little proactive on moderation of discussions. A few notes with regard to a recent complaint about this moderation:

  • This Web site is hosted on a server that I own, with bandwidth I pay for.
  • When you’re participating in a discussion here, you’re my guest. As such, I want to make my guests — especially those typically on the short end of the stick in the issues at hand — feel comfortable expressing themselves. If one boorish guest makes several well-mannered guests want to leave, I’m going to err on the side of the well-mannered guests.
  • I am interested in minority opinions here. Majority opinions, by definition, dominate in the world around us. This is an alternative publication, intended to give voice to people who are not well-represented in mainstream media and organizations.
  • Minority opinions have always been shouted down in the public square, and majority rule frequently denies basic civil rights when majority privilege is perceived to be under threat.
  • If we’re discussing how to lessen inequity, I’m not interested in arguing whether inequity exists. Likewise, if we’re talking about race, I don’t want to host arguments that white privilege doesn’t exist. And since the education of our children is at the center of everything here, I’m definitely not interested in giving grown-ups a platform to trash talk students for typos.
  • This is not a freedom of speech issue, it is a freedom of press issue. I own this press; I decide what gets published (and until very recently, I’ve published every comment that’s been submitted). Anybody with access to the library can get a free blog of their own at WordPress or several other sites, and discuss whatever they choose. If they follow the rules here, they can even post a link to their own blog.

I do not take lightly the decision to moderate a discussion — by admonishment, editing comments, deleting comments, moderating certain users, or, as a last resort, banning users. I have a strong presumption to allow all voices to be heard, but that is tempered by a desire to work toward social justice. Yes, this Web site has a point of view, and I’m not going to let it get derailed.

In time I’ve published PPS Equity, the vast majority of participants have been respectful, mature, intelligent and informed, even when in disagreement. You, the readers, have contributed far more column inches to this site than me. I’ve learned a ton, and have been respectfully corrected on a number of issues I thought I had a line on.

I’ve participated in online discussions — Usenet, e-mail lists, Web forums and blogs — for over a decade. So I can say with some authority that the tone of discussion here is something we should all be proud of (see, for example, how ugly things have been getting on another Portland site). I don’t know of any other political Web site that rises to the level of discourse here. I’m not about to let one person change that.

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

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For the greater common good

I publish this Web site to advocate for the greater common good. I even came up with a mission statement some time back to capture this notion more specifically:

The mission of PPS Equity is to inform, advocate and organize, with a goal of equal educational opportunity for all students in Portland Public Schools, regardless of their address, their parent’s wealth, or their race.

I’ve been troubled by the direction some recent discussions here have taken, as have some readers who have contacted me privately.

Discussions about poverty and race have pushed some into extreme frustration. One reader sent me this link as an illustration of the attitudes she has encountered on this site.

Another reader chafes at what she perceives as an anti-test bias on this site. She cites data showing “65% of PPS 10th grade black students getting a C or better in math but ODE assessments show[ing] only 21% of that population at benchmark.” There’s huge distrust of the district within minority communities, and this kind of data shows why.

Yes, we’ve seen district policy ostensibly aimed at narrowing the “achievement gap” contribute to a two-tiered school system. But that doesn’t mean the achievement gap isn’t real, that the district can’t take real strides in addressing it, or that we shouldn’t have some objective standards by which to measure the district’s progress in doing so.

This is just one example of where teacher-reformers clash — perhaps unwittingly — with civil rights activists, a fight I don’t want to get in the middle of.

The charter school discussion is another fight I’m weary of. It has veered repeatedly into personal territory, with charter parents getting passionately defensive about their personal choices, and charter opponents criticizing those choices with equal passion. From within that melee, I asked a simple question: How can charters contribute to the greater common good?

Besides modeling pedagogy that we already know works, nobody seems to have an answer to that succinct question (though some have pointed out how charters work against the common good).

At the end of the day, I’m not interested in hosting a pissing match about personal choices. I also don’t want to get too deeply into education reform issues, which increasingly seem to pit progressive-minded teachers against civil rights groups (not to mention their strange bedfellows in the market-oriented, anti-union, foundation- and corporate-funded “reform” movement).

I don’t doubt that education reformers want to help all students, and that charter parents would love a system where everybody wanted and got what they’re getting. But these discussions don’t seem to lead to much unity of vision or purpose.

One thing I know for sure: the enrollment and funding policies of Portland Public Schools have resulted in a pattern of public investment and placement of comprehensive schools that demonstrably favors white, middle class neighborhoods and students, to the detriment of the other half of the city. I’m not naive enough to think righting that wrong would be enough for our poor and minority students; I think the district should learn to walk and chew gum at the same time — i.e. address inputs and outcomes simultaneously.

But this is the focus I want to get back to here: what can we do to make our public school system fair, just and equitable for the greater common good? If we’re not working toward answering that question, I fear we’re getting sidetracked… just as we finally see signs of movement in that direction at the district level.

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

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PPS Equity gone wild

Since this Web site was launched a little over a year ago, it’s had a small but dedicated following, and the list of contributors keeps growing, little by little.

Then, this month, something happened. Due to a combination of factors, traffic for the month of March is suddenly more than double the previous monthly average, and comments — many from new readers — are through the roof.

Props to long-time contributor Peter Campbell for sparking things up in the comments department with his thought-provoking posts, and to new contributor Stephanie Hunter for shining a light on the frequently-overlooked inequities faced by PPS students on IEPs.

I am not an educator or a journalist, just a socially-conscious, politically-active parent. I publish this Web site because I can, and because I feel a moral responsibility to speak out about injustice when I see it. But without reader participation, it would be nothing but a lone voice in the wilderness.

The civility of the dialog here, and the level of intelligence, expertise and critical thinking you all share puts other local blogs and media outlets to shame. I am truly humbled by this (even a little proud).

There have been just 16 blog posts this month, and over 350 comments. That’s 25% of all comments posted here in the 14 months this site has been live. I’ve taken a few steps back recently to spend more time with my family, so it’s gratifying to see this thing take on a life of its own. I own the server, but nobody can own the community dialog that’s taking place on it.

It’s gotten to the point that I can barely keep up (I do have a day job!). In order to make the comments easier to follow, I’ve added a comments page, listing the most recent 100 comments, as well as some statistics. I also plan to implement some other features soon to make discussions easier to follow, e.g. comment threading (and perhaps automatic quoting, etc.).

If you have any suggestions for making this site more useful, I’m all ears. And as always, I welcome new contributors. Drop an e-mail to steve at ppsequity dot org if you’d like to join the ranks of writers here.

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

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Anniversary thank you

This month marks the one-year anniversary of PPS Equity, and the two-year anniversary of my first blog post on education and tax policy in Oregon (warning: salty language). Thanks to all who have contributed to the discussion here. I continue to be overwhelmed by your intelligence, honesty and thoughtfulness, and all the support I get in the community.

Someday, maybe, there will be no need for this Web site. Until then, I intend to keep it running. Thanks for all the support, and please keep the discussion rolling!

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

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Planned and unplanned outages

The server that hosts PPS Equity has been experiencing technical difficulties due to increasing loads (the PPS snow cancellations brought unprecedented traffic to this site from users seeking up-to-date school closure information) and a coincidental hardware problem (a failing router), but help is on the way.

A new, more powerful server is coming for the new year, and a new router should be installed in the next two days. In the meantime, you can expect intermittent outages and slowness from the PPS Equity Web site. Thank you for your patience!

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

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