Equity and School Choice

10:25 pm

I think it can be safely said that the goal of PPS Equity is to ensure that all public school students in Portland, regardless of skin color or family background, have access to decent schools in (or near) their own neighborhoods. They shouldn’t have to travel halfway across the city to find schools with a competent principal, good teachers, a library, and programs that include music, art, foreign languages and physical education. (Note: PPS Equity actually has a mission statement now, which pretty well matches this description. –Ed.)

Unfortunately that goal will never be realized as long as the district keeps judging (and demonizing) schools by the relative wealth of their students (that’s essentially what standardized test scores reveal); and if it refuses to shut down the conveyor belt that empties poor neighborhoods of students and money.

The conveyor belt is the district’s transfer policy, a policy that both enables and encourages school choice. Portland Public Schools leadership, including the school board, seems disinclined to address the crisis of school inequity caused in large part by the transfer policy. And I fear that won’t change with the probable appointment of new board member Martin Gonzales. From what I know of Martin, he’s pro-school choice.

I’ve been the recipient lately of some troubling comments that choice and transfer benefit poor and minority students, and that to deny them the right to choose is to “trap” them in “failing” schools. That’s precisely the stance of the pro-privatization and pro-school choice Cascade Policy Institute and it’s co-conspirator, the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

School choice, in short, has become a civil right.

The reality in Portland reveals how wrong-headed that belief is. Choice leaves behind — or traps, if you will — the poorest and darkest skinned students in schools that struggle to provide barely adequate educational programs.

The Flynn-Blackmer audit (232 KB PDF), Steve Rawley’s research (261 KB PDF), and PPS staff’s graphic presentation to a school board subcommittee last fall all show how choice and transfer further segregate Portland’s students by race and by class.

For a public school district to tolerate, and even encourage, policies that create such race and class-based disparities is intolerable.

So what can be done?

First the school board has to acknowledge that many, perhaps half, of Portland’s lower income schools are in crisis. Confronting that crisis requires bold funding measures to restore programs to low income schools comparable to those found in wealthier schools.

Secondly, (and this is my personal opinion), the board must short circuit the school transfer conveyor belt. We already are witnessing limitations on transfers for the simple reason that students who want out of their “failing” schools have no place to go. In time, the transfer system will grind to a halt on its own, choked to death by congestion. How many Lincolns or Ainsworths, after all, are left to accept desperate students?

Lastly, the district and the board should stop using No Child Left Behind as an excuse for inaction. I’ve suggested that the district thumb its nose at the new federal Title I* mandates. It should take a stand, a dramatic stand, hoping that a new Congress will either refuse to reauthorize NCLB or revamp it to help, not punish, struggling low income schools.

School choice (again, my personal opinion, not the official position of PPS Equity) is a pie-in-the-sky fantasy. It’s a self-defeating approach to school improvement, one that will ultimately lead to the total privatization of our once proud public educational system. It already has gone a long way toward undermining neighborhood schools. Choice is at the heart of No Child Left Behind, a law that pushes charter schools and punishes low income schools with mandated transfer options.

It’s time to end them both.

* (I figure that opting out of Title I would cost the district 8% of it total budget.)

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Terry Olson passed away in October, 2009. He was a retired teacher and a neighborhood schools activist. His blog, OlsonOnline, was a seminal space for the discussion of educational equity in Portland.

filed under: Charter Schools, Equity, No Child Left Behind, Segregation, Standardized Testing, Transfer Policy

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13 Responses

  1. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I’m glad the commenter “trueblue” on your blog has brought this up. It bares careful consideration.

    You’ve done an excellent job showing the fallacy of school choice as a civil right.

    But I do see some validity with the concern. Why should minority communities trust the district that’s screwed them for so long to actually provide equitable education in their neighborhoods?

    That’s why I think rather than an outright ban on neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, PPS should consider the kind of transfer policy that came out of the 1980 desegregation plan, modified to be based on income instead of race.

    Transfers could be allowed, so long as they do not contribute to increased economic segregation.

    In other words, poor kids could transfer to rich schools, or rich kids could transfer to poor schools.

    Base it on Title I status of the schools and free/reduced lunch status of the students.

    Of course, this must be predicated on first equalizing opportunity in all neighborhoods schools, with the transfers allowed as a guarantee of good will.

    This should satisfy people like “trueblue” (and Martin Gonzalez?) who seem sincere in their worry that ending open transfer enrollment would “prevent minority kids from fleeing underperforming schools,” yet completely eliminate the segregating and defunding effects of the current policy.

  2. Comment from Terry:

    A modified transfer policy has some merit. But really, how many rich kids are hankering to attend poor schools?

    On another note, there is no evidence that students who score badly on math and reading tests improve their test performances in “better” schools. In fact, they often do worse.

  3. Comment from Marian:

    I have an acquaintance who was a student at Tubman at its inception, during the 1980 desegregation plan, which Steve R. references above. She mentioned that it was an amazing place to be, teachers and kids were inspired and inspiring. Maybe Steve B. can help me with this, but I seem to remember her saying the program was really beefed up there, so as to attract kids from all over the city. Can you shed a little light on how the 1980 desegregation plan worked then and how it might work today to bring equity back?

  4. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    I’ve always been puzzled that PPS would put magnets in predominately white, middle class neighborhoods, e.g. Winterhaven, Buckman and Sunnyside.

    Seems like if you were serious about integration, you’d put the cream of the schools in your poorest neighborhoods, simultaneously increasing opportunity and investment where it’s most needed and encouraging voluntary integration.

    PPS has this completely backwards, with the schools offering the most opportunity located in the wealthy neighborhoods, sucking enrollment and investment out of poor neighborhoods.

    What’s really galling about this is that the school board completely shirks all responsibility and likes to talk about it being a “Catch 22,” even as they continue policies that reinforce this pattern.

  5. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Marian, we added several FTE to every predominately African American school and redid a lot of the curriculum to reflect African American history and to some degree I guess you could say culture.

    I might point out this was done against the wishes of the superintendent and came explicitly from the board itself. So when the board talks about not being a legislative body but letting the supt. run everything (that isn’t exactly how it is put, but pretty much comes out that way) it is pure hogwash. The board legally has the ability to address any of the problems facing the school district.

  6. Comment from Marian:

    Steve B., Thanks for the info on the 1980 desegregation plan. I find that approach very appealing. It would seem to me that many of us so called “progressives” would love to see something like this re-implemented. Having abundantly staffed schools in poorer/minority neighborhoods would be an incentive for families to stick with their neighborhood schools. Why are most families leaving their neighborhood schools? My best guest is a perception that schools in wealthier neighborhoods have more to offer. And more often than not, they do have more to offer.

    But even if something like this were implemented, I see yet another equity hurdle to overcome to get people to reject transferring out of their neighborhood schools. It’s the NCLB AYP scores. The way these scores are detailed on the “AYP Report”, underscores any racist and classist perceptions many of us have failed to purge from our systems. I’m talking about how test scores are divided into categories of race, income status, etc. If a parent with a child approaching school age pulls up the AYP Report of his/her (poorer) neighborhood school and compares it to one in a wealthier neighborhood or a magnet school, he/she is likely to see scores that would scare most of us away. Even though some of us policy wonks understand all the problems with the NCLB testing and how unfair it is, etc., bad test scores and their association with the demographics of the school are hard to erase from your mind. A parent new to PPS is most likely going to go with his/her first impressions.

    I strongly feel something like the 1980 desegregation plan should be reimplemented and would be a good start in the right direction. But the AYP Report and other school ratings are a huge hinderance in our work toward equity.

  7. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Marian, go over to Terry Olsen’s blog and look at the things I suggest to help offset the destructive elements of NCLB testing. I really think there are some pretty easy things we can do to improve (not fix) the system. We will only get it fixed by repealing NCLB.

  8. Comment from mneloa:

    Bingo. To Steve Buel’s comment # 5. “…and redid a lot of the curriculum to reflect African American history and to some degree I guess you could say culture.”
    Well, who is moving into the area and why on earth would they want their children’s education narrowed in that way.?

  9. Comment from Steve Rawley:

    The education at schools in non-middle class neighborhoods has been narrowed not by the Black United Front’s efforts in 1980 (which actually broadened curriculum and made it more relevant for black students), but by the school board’s student transfer policy in combination with its school funding formula.

    They’ve further narrowed options with their skewed implementation of “small schools” in every single neighborhood high school that isn’t predominantly white and middle class (while retaining comprehensive schools at Cleveland, Franklin, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson).

    I haven’t heard anybody on this Web site calling for narrowing curriculum in our poor and working class neighborhoods. To the contrary.

    What I want to see is access to comprehensive education in every neighborhood.

    We do need enough flexibility to be able to offer culturally relevant curriculum in different neighborhoods and to serve our diverse student body, but this should in no way detract from an equitable core curriculum, available to all students in every neighborhood school.

  10. Comment from Terry:

    I hardly think, mneloa, that the offering of African American history “narrows” anyone’s education, black or white, rich or poor.

    I’m a white dude who in college was inspired by the African American history I wasn’t taught in high school.

    I would argue that no one’s education can be considered complete without exposure to the realities of slavery and its impact on all of American life. Or to the multitude of great black writers who offer a perspective that is otherwise invisible to modern white folks.

    I would also remind you that in the poor schools of North and Northeast Portland, school enrollments will probably be significantly black for the forseeable future.

  11. Comment from mneloa:

    Terry, I’ve never had a problem with the inclusion of Afrcan American history in the highschool curriculum. I have a huge problem with the powers that be deciding that this should only happen in
    “certain neighborhoods”. Why are we not concerned about the Lincoln and Wilson students
    missing out?
    And I remind you back, Gentrification IS happening, even here. Used to be, I counted, 17 kids on the block. All “of color” except for mine.
    Now there are maybe 5, in the last section 8
    house left.
    And, no, Unless the black middle class suddenly
    takes a fancy to inner N/NE, I’m not sure why you think the area would remain “significantly black”.
    Seriously, I would like to know where that idea comes from.


  12. Comment from west side mom:

    Terry said “school enrollments will probably be significantly black for the forseeable future.” (emphasis added)

    This is the trend, anyway, and unless PPS changes its enrollment policy, there’s no reason to think it’ll change…

    As neighborhoods become more integrated through gentrification (for better or worse), PPS schools become more segregated through transfers.

  13. Comment from Terry:

    Where does the idea come from?

    Seriously, mneloa, from PPS’ own school enrollment profiles.