Category: Budget

Wynde: Oregon education commitment “luke warm”

PPS school board member David Wynde takes the legislature to task in an Oregonian commentary this morning.

It’s no coincidence that Oregon has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation. Our lukewarm commitment to education hurts Oregon’s short-term and long-term economic growth.

Oregon’s response to this crisis couldn’t be more contrary to President Barack Obama’s strategy. The president is using stimulus dollars to blunt school cuts and spur important reforms because he believes education is vital to our nation’s economic growth.

In Oregon, we say education is a priority, then slash schools and programs for lack of funds. The state does not have the same budget flexibility as the federal government, but other states keep their schools operating.

We are suffering a dismal failure of leadership in Salem. Even with a Democratic super majority in the legislature a Democratic governor, nobody is taking the lead in proposing reforms our inadequate, unstable revenue stream, and nobody seems to connect the dots between education and the economy as Wynde does.

Perhaps we need to look at local funding options again. If the state of Oregon doesn’t have the sense to fund our future, perhaps the people of Portland do.

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

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Audio: Jonah Edelman (and me) on “autonomy and accountability”

Johna Edelman, head of Stand for Children, addressed the City Club of Portland last Friday on the topic of improving education in Oregon, even as we face budget cuts.

He identifies three ways to improve things: teacher and principal quality, autonomy within a framework of accountability, and time.

Edelman had some good points about teacher pay and training, and the need for good and supportive principals. He also made valid points about our antiquated agrarian school calendar.

The autonomy bit raised some red flags with me, of course, since I’m very well versed in how that’s worked out in Portland. But first, here’s what he has to say about it (1 min. 32 sec.):

If you don’t have audio, here’s what I think are his salient points: accountability equals test scores. “When I say free [principals and teachers] up, I mean free them up to help students reach high academic standards set by the state and then hold them accountable when they don’t.”

Edelman doesn’t let the fact that Portland Public Schools principals in poor neighborhoods have not always made the best choices deter his optimism: “…when schools are freed up from bureaucratic rules, and given the autonomy to decide how to make maximum use of time, people and money, educators can do a far better job of providing the personalized, rigorous, engaging education that meets the diverse needs and taps the diverse strengths of students.”

At this point, I threw away the question I was going to ask him about the role of Stand in Portland school board elections, and decided to ask him how we can assure that with autonomy, poor schools don’t just become test prep factories (2 min. 13 sec.):

Edelman points out that we’re not as bad as Washington D.C., where they do 52 days of test prep (so maybe we should be happy with that?). And while he makes a valid point about special ed and ELL money from the state not fully following students, he completely missed my point about PPS principals in poor neighborhoods cutting non-core programs (music, library, etc.) to focus on “academic achievement”.

I’d like to invite Jonah out to a tour of our second-tier system in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters to see just how well autonomy has worked for the invisible half of Portland, the half that doesn’t always get the things other parts of town take for granted, like college prep, world languages, boutique condo schools, music, art, chemistry, civics, calculus literature and libraries.

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

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On condos, schools, and social engineering

Monday night’s vote by the Portland Public Schools board of education to lease space in the Pearl condo district for a PK-2 school raises an interesting question: is it responsible public policy to use public schools as a tool to promote real estate development? Or, more cynically, why do we see the need to invest in a new school in anticipation of need, when so many existing neighborhoods, particularly those with high concentrations of poor and minority students, are currently underserved?

PPS administrators and school board members seem to want in on the dreamy social engineering mentality made popular by former city commissioner Eric Sten, in which public investment in the form of roads, parks, streetcars, and now schools, are used to subsidize commercial real estate developers. The brief history of this kind of development in Portland tells us that promises of affordable housing are rarely (if ever) met.

More importantly, if we wanted to use our precious education investment in this way, why get in on it when most of the housing in the Pearl is already built, and it is inadequate for growing families? Even worse, why enter the condo market craps game after the bottom has fallen out?

Ruth Adkins, in remarks at the school board meeting and in an e-mail to the “Get involved with Jefferson Schools” e-mail list, justifies the move: “We are trying to plan for and help shape future growth…” she writes. She also claims that this move will not distract the district from its other work.

But those of us following the K8 debacle know that PPS has a proven inability to walk and chew gum at the same time. There has been no public progress on the K8 transition for nearly a year, and, other than a mention from Ruth Adkins from time to time, there has been no serious talk of restoring a middle school option to the broad swath of Portland that lost it in the rushed and ill-conceived K8 transition.

More than anything, this move shows that PPS is inept at perception management. Even if the district were able to follow through on its other commitments, to approve a five-year, $1.5 million speculative gamble at a time when we’re seriously talking about cutting the school year for lack of money looks really, really insensitive.

It also sends an inconsistent message regarding small schools, as Martin Gonzalez pointed out in his dissenting comments Monday night. Sonja Henning also opposed the move, and gave a withering critique of the “exponential track” this project was put on. Henning remarked that connected people can “pick up the phone” and get this kind of project done, while other citizens have waited “10 or 15 years” and gotten nothing (a replacement for the razed Whittaker school comes to mind).

PPS Chief Operating Office Cathy Mincberg appeared shaken by Henning’s remarks, and jumped in to insist that the idea originated among district and city staff, an assertion contradicted by the fact that wealthy white Pearl residents have been advocating for a school for at least a year.

In an annual budget of half a billion dollars, a quarter million really isn’t much money. But given the fact that the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters — serving the poorest, least white parts of Portland — have had comprehensive secondary education virtually eliminated in recent years, spending any money trying to “shape future growth” in a neighborhood that is overwhelmingly white and wealthy indicates a serious problem with priorities.

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

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In the news: another teacher on budget cuts, PPS board to consider lease in Pearl

Portland Public Schools teacher Caryn Cushman challenges Ted Kulongoski’s call for teachers to work (more) for free, and the PPS board of education considers a lease for a new school in the Pearl district tonight, a move questioned by PAT president Rebecca Levison, among others (I questioned the idea when it was first floated a year ago).

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

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In the news: Teacher on K8s, state funding cuts

In a letter to the editor in today’s Oregonian (not published online), Portland Public Schools eighth grade teacher Sheila Wilcox gets to the point about our state funding cuts and PPS’s “already underfunded experiment in K-8s”:

As a teacher in a K-8 school in Portland, I am extremely dismayed at the talk of more unstable funding for education. Already, I am teaching eighth grade in a portable classroom on my school’s playground.

The building is poorly insulated, and the heating system is inadequate. My students have next to no access to technology (our mobile lab will be used for testing for the rest of the year), no music, and our library is the worst I’ve seen in my 13 years with the district.

I have tried to speak with several district officials and have been put off or dismissed altogether. How sad that our already underfunded experiment in K-8s will be shortchanged this school year, once again.

The still unfinished K8 transition gives students less while costing us more (much like the rigid Gate’s style academies we seem stuck with, despite the model being repudiated by the Gates foundation). The district seems to have lost interest in K8s, distracted by both the budget and the coming unveiling of the high school plan.

Also in today’s paper, Betsy Hammond writes that Oregon is alone among states discussing a shortened school year (despite most states being in fiscal crisis). Oregon is unique for both its unstable education funding, and its unwillingness to protect education from such draconian cuts.

A national shame on our Democratic Party-controlled state house and governor for failing to avoid such immediate cuts, and, most importantly, to address the long-term inadequacy and volatility of our revenue model.

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

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Budget bright side: time for a reset

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.

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

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The budget slaughter and poor schools

David Wynde issued a dire warning at the last school board meeting about the coming budget, which he describes as large cuts to an already inadequate base of funding. Though he didn’t say it, there will likely be cuts to programming, increases in class size and maybe even school closures.

Current enrollment figures, released this week, show a persistent pattern of divestment from the poorest neighborhoods in Portland due to the migration of students under the Portland Public Schools student transfer policy, and its labyrinthine, outdated and counterproductive layers of school board exceptions and amendments.

We have allowed “choice” to design a system of schools in Portland that are dramatically inequitable in terms of course offerings, teacher experience, and discipline.

School choice has dismantled, closed, or demolished (literally) every single comprehensive secondary school in the Jefferson and Madison clusters. The same is true for the Roosevelt and Marshall clusters, save two beleagured, largley poor and minority middle schools on the fringes of district boundaries.

The schools that remain disproportionately lack library staff, music, art and electives when compared to the rest of Portland, and are more segregated by race and class than the neighborhoods they serve.

It’s been two and a half years since a joint city-county audit (230KB PDF) concluded that Portland’s school choice system was at odds with strong neighborhood schools, noted declining availability of transfer slots in high-demand schools, and recommended suspension of the transfer lottery “until the Board adopts a policy that clarifies the purpose of the school choice system.”

The school board has never issued that policy, or done anything significant to reform a system that has not only failed, it’s made matters worse.

So, two and half years later, parents in the poorest parts of town are agonizing over ever more rapidly dwindling transfer slots in schools increasing distances from their homes, because their neighborhood schools have been utterly drained of enrollment, funding, and opportunity.

“This isn’t school choice,” one parent told me. “It’s school chance.”

Current transfer policy arose largely out of the last budget crisis, and the result has been devestating to poor neighborhoods and the families who live there. So this current crisis is an opportunity as much as it is a challenge.

It may seem an awkward time to demand the rebuilding of school libraries, music and art departments. But if we spread enrollment and funding proportionately to where students live, we could begin rebuild these programs in schools that have lost them. At the same time, we can maintain a base line of programming at other schools that are currently over-crowded.

Yes, there will be cuts, but some clusters and schools have fared dramatically better under choice than others. We cannot tolerate any more reduction of opportunity in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters, all of which have been cut beyond the bone. Yes, the rest of this town may have to go without some of their gravy so these clusters can have a little meat.

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

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