Category: Charter Schools

A response to Carole Smith: Close the opportunity gap and the achievement gap will follow

In an e-mail sent to staff and some community members, Carole Smith expresses great enthusiasm and joy in her work on the first day of school. As a parent, I find this encouraging.

What I find discouraging is how she frames the issue of equity.

“…[W]ith every decision,” writes Smith, “we must ask ourselves about equity. All too often, a student’s family income and ethnicity predict his or her eventual success in school.”

This is true, sad, and terribly unjust.

But this defines equity exclusively in terms of outcomes. It omits two critical facts. The first is that as a school district, we control only a small portion of the inputs that lead to unequal outcomes.

Secondly, by focusing on outcomes, we conveniently avoid the inconvenient fact that a student’s race and income are also extremely accurate predictors of the wealth of curriculum and the level of teacher experience on offer at that student’s school.

The problem with striving for equity in outcomes is not that it’s a bad goal. It’s imperative that we improve things for our poorest students. The problem is that it is impossible for any school district to do this alone. We need a concerted federal, state and local anti-poverty program to make a serious dent in this problem.

“Closing the achievement gap” is a logical fallacy, in fact, and it’s perpetuated by the a breed of “reformers” we’re all familiar with: the Gates and Broad foundations, and our old friend Vicki Phillips. As they have pursued this false, unattainable goal, they have driven public investment out of Portland’s poor and minority neighborhoods and have set up schools for failure. This has led to increased out-transfers and decreased opportunity, and is a logical path to school closures. There can be no question that as a national movement, this is opening the door for more charter schools, and from there it’s just a small step to vouchers.

I don’t believe Carole Smith wants to convert our schools to charters or give out vouchers for private Christian schools. But I do believe her concept of equity is unduly influenced by those who are doing active harm to the institution of the common school.

It is a fundamental truth that we as a school district can never attain equity in terms of “success in school.”

Success, or “achievement,” are terms that boil down to extremely crude metrics (standardized tests and graduation rates), and they invariably have led to a narrower, shallower curriculum with a focus on “core” academics (numeracy and literacy) in Portland schools that serve disproportionate numbers of poor and minority students.

I’ve documented repeatedly how secondary students in the Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt clusters have been systematically robbed of comprehensive high schools (0 remain) and middle schools (3 remain). The predominately white, middle class students in the Cleveland, Grant, Lincoln and Wilson clusters have preserved their comprehensive high schools (all 4 remain) and middle schools (6 remain, including two each in the Wilson and Cleveland clusters).

It’s not hard to see how this reduction in the breadth and depth of curriculum would actually be detrimental to “achievement.”

Instead of tilting at windmills trying to shape outcomes while controlling only a small portion of the inputs that contribute to a student’s success or failure, Portland Public Schools needs to focus on the inputs it does control: equity of opportunity. This we can achieve, with existing funding, city-wide, today. We can end the equity “debate,” and I’ll gladly shut down this blog tomorrow, and start hammering on the state for better funding.

Let’s talk about equity in terms of not being able to tell the wealth of a neighborhood by the wealth of course offerings at the local high school.

Until we first see it in this light, and as a greater societal issue of poverty, it’s hard to take seriously the conflation of “equity” with the the logically false goal of “closing the achievment gap.”

Don’t get me wrong. I like Carole Smith, especially her energy, enthusiasm, and her desire to work with stakeholders to find solutions. She ends her e-mail with a quote from Ron Heifetz: “Solutions are achieved when ‘the people with the problem’ go through a process together to become ‘the people with the solution.'”

It is my goal to help our superintendent recognize the problem of approximately half of Portland as one of dramatically unequal opportunity. If you stand on the eastern boundary of PPS and look west, it’s hard to miss that students on the fringes of PPS (and of society) have been getting a progressively worse and worse deal as we strive to “close the achievement gap,” a process which has systematically widened the “opportunity gap.”

Instead of focusing on crudely measured outcomes, largely determined by inputs we have no control over, we need to focus on the inputs over which we have total control.

I firmly believe that if we first address the opportunity gap, gains in closing the achievement gap will follow.

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


Equity and School Choice

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.)

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.


PPS Equity 2007-08 retrospective

The 2007-08 PPS school year heard lots of talk of equity, but no common vision has emerged for what that means or how we can get there.

Things started on a cautiously optimistic high note with the hiring from within of Carole Smith, whose staff started saying the right things about equity.

The school year built to a climax with the mayor’s week at Jefferson in January, but the wind started to come out of the sails with a new budget that brings further staffing cuts at schools in poor neighborhoods. Questions remain about the district’s commitment to “proof points” at Jefferson, such as merging the academies, to say nothing of restoring the performing arts department or restoring AP classes.

Questions about the PK-8 transition bubbled up and led to Smith’s first encounter with an angry mob. She responded with an action team. Some of the biggest holes are plugged, but PK-8 remains in crisis, still short library staff for eight schools.

In the end, we still don’t know: What defines equity? There have been no changes to the policies most responsible for inequity (open transfers and the school funding formula). Worse, the district seems fixed in a mindset that they can guarantee outcomes for children affected by poverty. But this mindset has subjected our poorest children to less educational depth and breadth, and can only accelerate out-transfers of those better off.

The longer they try to deliver “equity” like this, the more inequitable things have gotten.

Ultimately, the only path to equity is equal opportunity and balanced enrollment. That is (like I said in September), we’ve got to define a comprehensive curriculum (including arts, libraries, technology, etc.) and deliver it in every neighborhood school, and we’ve got to talk about the transfer policy in the detail requested by the Flynn-Blackmer audit, issued two years ago this month.

September 2007

Report on transfer policy and neighborhood funding inequity presented to school board

I present the school board and interim superintendent Ed Schmitt the first draft of my report Charting Open Transfer Enrollment and Neighborhood Funding Inequities (261KB PDF). The report details how the district’s transfer and enrollment policy takes significant funding from our poorest neighborhoods — over $40 million in 2006-2007 — and hands it to our wealthiest neighborhoods. The poorest school clusters — Jefferson, Madison, Marshall and Roosevelt — continue with disproportionate program cuts as enrollment and funding flow to more affluent neighborhoods. Schools in wealthier neighborhoods effectively maintain comprehensive programming at the expense of our poorest citizens.

PPS changes policy to allow corporate advertising in school gyms

Before Carole Smith is hired, the school board votes to allow the Trail Blazers to “donate” the refinishing of our ten high school gym floors in exchange for the placement of permanent corporate ads. Dwight Jaynes loves the idea, others do not. Rick Seifert (of Red Electric fame) inspires the nickname Dwight “Burgerville” Jaynes.

October 2007

Smith hired from within

Bucking a trend of hiring administrators from outside of the district, the school board surprises many by hiring Carole Smith from within. Smith wastes no time setting high expectations, saying “Jefferson’s going to be great.”

District low-balls rehired custodians

Opening negotiations with their rehired custodians, PPS offers a 30% pay cut.

District data show transfer policy aggravates segregation

In advance of board discussion on the transfer policy, administrators present data showing the segregation caused by the transfer policy.

City offers million dollar band-aid to district’s 40 million dollar problem

Erik Sten‘s Bureau of Housing and Community Development offers Portland schools a million dollars to to “create excitement.” Excitement fails to materialize.

November 2007

Board dances around transfer issue, takes no action to balance enrollment

The school board finally gets around to talking about its transfer policy, a year and a half after auditors asked for clarification. They artfully avoid answering city and county auditors’ questions about racial and economic segregation caused by its policy.

December 2007

Board rejects all four charter applications

Possibly signaling a new attitude, the school board rejects four charter school applications.

New Administration makes positive rumblings about “Equity”

Carole Smith’s administration starts saying the right thing about equity.

January 2008

Mayor Potter comes to Jefferson

The school board comes, too, and is met with a parade of students speaking eloquently about the lack of rigorous and varied course offerings available to them. The Jefferson High School PTSA presents the school board with their comprehensively damning resolution calling for an end to the transfer policy that has devastated the schools in our poorest neighborhoods. I put in my two cents worth, too, addressing the intolerable inequity created by the board’s transfer policy.

The whole scene is repeated Wednesday, when the City Council meets at Jefferson. In addition to the students and PTSA members, city council candidate and Wilson High parent Amanda Fritz addresses the council about the glaring differences between her daughter’s school and Jefferson. I speak of the school district and city working at cross purposes.

The week wraps up with the mayor’s state of the city address to the City Club on Friday, with club members getting a tour of Jefferson’s half-empty library, and the mothballed metal shop, TV studio and band room.

The entire week leaves the Jefferson community buoyed by a sense of hope and possibility. How could a city like Portland tolerate such glaring inequity?

February 2008

PPS Equity launched

It seems like it’s been a lot longer, but I just launched this site in February.

The last “Celebration!”

PPS holds its last “meat market” school choice fair.

PK8 comes to a boil

Two years after a rushed decision to eliminate middle schools (in some neighborhoods; the west side gets to keep theirs, evidently) parents come together to demand a better deal for their middle-school children.

Custodians stave off 30% pay cut

Custodians and food service workers are made to feel good about taking a 3-year wage freeze.

Ivy charter withdraws application

With the board poised to approve their application on appeal (with some modifications), the organizers of the Ivy Charter School withdraw at the last minute. The other three applications in the cycle were rejected and did not appeal.

Smith’s first budget: where’s the equity?

Carole Smith’s first budget makes a few tentative steps toward equity, but does nothing to balance enrollment or help schools hardest hit by the transfer policy.

March 2008

Smith forms PK8 action team

Two years after beginning implementation, the district decides to start planning for it.

April 2008

Deep cuts to poor schools

As community members start to study the budget, deep cuts are discovered at our poorest schools, putting the lie to the “overarching” goal of equity.

Gates “small schools” make no progress

Touted as a salve for the “achievement gap,” our poorest schools were carved up into academies. New data show these schools continue to have the worst dropout rates in Portland.

May 2008

Jefferson Students walk out, protest lack of progress

Frustrated at staffing cuts, and a continuing lack of breadth and depth in course offerings, Jefferson students walk out, demanding curriculum, teachers, AP classes, language classes, College Center, and
other programs.

School board funds new books for middle schoolers, even as many schools lack library staff

Some parents question the timing and priority of the move.

PK8 team addresses some concerns

PK8 schools get some basic guarantees, but district won’t commit to library staff for nearly a third of PK8 schools. Transition remains in crisis, but at a lower boil.

June 2008

Madison students walk out, decry “small schools”

Protesting the anticipated “involuntary transfer” of a highly-regarded counselor, around 50 Madison High School students walk out, also citing discontent with the “small schools” model that has them constrained in narrow academic silos.

Oregonian covers small schools

In an A1 story in the Sunday Oregonian, reporters Betsy Hammond and Lisa Grace Lednicer write about the failure of the Gates-funded “small schools” to bridge the “achievement gap.”

But it is quixotic to form policy around outcomes, as former PPS school board member Steve Buel has pointed out.

Over the summer

Teachers and students get summer vacation, but the school board never sleeps. They meet all summer, and three of them will be entering the final year of their term (Henning, Ryan and Sargent). Will the transfer policy be addressed in a meaningful way? Will we finally figure out how to talk about high schools, school mergers (closures) and facilities, all in one fell swoop? Will anybody present a vision for what PPS will look like in five years? Stay tuned….

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


Ivy Withdraws in a Surprise Move

The Ivy Charter School organizers surprised everybody tonight by withdrawing their appeal at the very last minute, just as the school board was poised to debate and vote.

In a legally questionable move, they intend to appeal directly to the state, before they’ve exhausted the formal appeal to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education. Even if the state accepts their appeal, they’ll find themselves in front of the PPS board again, where they’ve squandered a lot of good will.

The withdrawal was centered around the board resolution’s enrollment limit of 120 students (half what the organizers wanted), intended to ameliorate the “adverse impact” the charter would have had on neighborhood school enrollment. The board resolution also stipulated that the school be sited in a quadrant of town that would lessen this impact, presumably some place other than North or Northeast Portland.

I honestly had not read the board resolution until tonight, and didn’t fully understand that the charter school subcommittee of Ruth Adkins, Bobbie Regan and Trudy Sargent had put such strict conditions on the school. Kudos for them for placing the well-being of our neighborhood schools ahead of the needs of a charter. This proved to be the breaking point for this charter, and prevented a divisive debate and vote.

Terry Olson also has more coverage of this over on his blog.

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

1 Comment

The Upside and Downside of Charters

I think most anti-charter folks don’t recognize the other side of the argument, i.e., what makes charters really compelling as alternatives to mainstream public schools. Not all charter proponents are minority-hating, low-income-people avoiding, union-busting demons out to feather their own nests.

Charter critiques often overlook or do not acknowledge the progressive practices (e.g., student-centered instruction at many charters vs. teacher-led instruction at the majority of mainstream public schools, multiple forms of assessment vs. norm-based or multiple-choice assessments, democratically oriented school designs vs. top-down designs, more holistic, interdisciplinary curricula vs. a narrow range of subjects taught in isolation) that many charters engage in. According to the research I’ve done in PPS, Opal, Emerson, Trillium, and Portland Village all fall into some or most of these categories.
Read the rest…

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.


Open Letter to the School Board re. Ivy Charter

I am writing to urge you — once again — to reject the Ivy Charter application. The adverse impact of charter schools in North and Northeast Portland is clear if you simply look at the numbers.

For example, in the 69% non-white, 58.3% free and reduced lunch Jefferson cluster, we have two recently opened charter schools. Portland Village is 77.42% white and 9.7% free and reduced; Trillium is 64.97% white and 29.3% free and reduced. Aggravation of racial and socio-economic segregation is a clear case of adverse impact, and there is no reason to think Ivy would be any different.

Cliff Brush is right: We are at a tipping point. But it’s not just about charter schools. It is about a system that for decades has punished Portland children based on where they live and the color of their skin.

We’ve got to stop making policy decisions that set back the clock on equal opportunity.

The Jefferson cluster doesn’t need another charter school. It needs equitable, comprehensive educational programming.

After the mayor’s week at Jefferson, when students spoke eloquently and forcefully about being denied educational opportunities afforded their cross-town counterparts, and after a Celebrate event, where parents were told not to even bother applying for transfers into our most favored schools because there is no space available, it is time to look forward to a school system that no longer divides our citizens into haves and have nots.

It is time to define a uniform core curriculum, including art, music and P.E., offered at every neighborhood school. It is time to stop feeding into the self-reinforcing cycle of “failing” schools in our poorest neighborhoods by skimming enrollment, slashing programs, and closing buildings.

Now, in 2008, it is time for you as a policy maker to consider, with every policy decision, whether we are moving toward the future of a more equitable system, or whether we are looking backwards and perpetuating the segregated, balkanized system that is no longer tolerable in an enlightened city like Portland.

It is time to unequivocally move away from the shame that a two-tiered education system brings to our great city.

I know there is concern that you as a board member must follow state law. But as I mentioned above, adverse impact of charter schools is clear. Even if it weren’t, I would challenge you to be bold, and act in the interest of the least fortunate among us who do not have a voice is such matters.

As I said when I wrote to you on this issue before, let the state approve this application on appeal if they will. At least it won’t be on your conscience.

We are standing at the threshold of a proud new era in Portland Public Schools, one in which every neighborhood school is strong and comprehensive, and where no children are denied opportunity, no matter the color of their skin, the address on their door, or the wealth of their parents.

It is undeniable that we have momentum, and that this change is coming. This single vote, while merely for one small charter school, is symbolic of a sea change in the way we think about our school district and our city.

Before casting your vote, you must ask yourself: Which side are you on? Are you on the side of progress, integration and equity for all our children? Or are you on the other side?

You don’t have to answer me. History will be the judge.

Faithfully yours,
Steve Rawley

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

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Action Alert: Ivy School Vote Down to the Wire

The Ivy Charter appeal is on the agenda for this Monday, February 11. As expected, the board’s vote on this will be split. Superintendent Carole Smith is expected to recommend approval. Trudy Sargent and Bobbie Regan have already voted “yes” in committee, and Sonja Henning is expected to vote “yes” when the full board votes. Ruth Adkins, the lone “no” vote in committee, as well as Dilafruz Williams and David Wynde, are expected to vote “no.”

The crux of the matter appears to be “adverse impact.” State law says a school board may reject a charter application if “the value of the public charter school is outweighed by any directly identifiable, significant and adverse impact on the quality of the public education of students residing in the school district in which the public charter school will be located.”

The demographics of two recently approved charter schools provide a guide to the way these schools skim the whitest, wealthiest families from our neighborhood schools. In the 69% non-white, 58.3% free and reduced lunch Jefferson cluster, Portland Village Charter is 77.42% white and 9.7% free and reduced, and Trillium Charter is 64.97% white and 29.3% free and reduced.

These numbers represent a clear adverse impact, to the extent that they show aggravation of racial and socio-economic segregation.

We need neighborhood schools supporters to write e-mails today and speak at the board this Monday. Please see the Action page for board member e-mail addresses and information on giving testimony to the board. It would be especially helpful for citizens in the area directly impacted by this school would speak.

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


Action Alert: Ivy School

The Ivy Charter school has appealed their application, and the charter schools subcommittee has voted 2-to-1 to recommend ther approval. Board member Ruth Adkins was the lone no vote; Bobbie Regan and Trudy Sargent voted yes. This may be referred to the full board as soon as the February 11 meeting. Please write to the school board and superintendent right away to urge them to (once again) reject this application. Besides being too close to existing Northeast Portland neighborhood schools that are struggling with enrollment, it appears to be an attempt to convert an existing private school (which is illegal under Oregon law).

Here’s the letter I sent the board when they first considered this charter application, and the school board and superintendent’s e-mail addresses can be found here.

Swing votes on this appear to be Dan Ryan and Sonja Henning. The superintendent’s recommendation may carry weight with them, so please remember to write to her as well.

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


The Tribune Op-Ed

The Portland Tribune ran my guest opinion piece on the charter schools movement this morning, Promise is only illusion.

I’m generally pleased with the few edits they made, except for one, which significantly reduces the punch of the piece. See if you can spot the critical difference here.

Original: “In Portland, charter school students are whiter and wealthier than the general student population, and they are less likely to have special needs.”

Edited: “In Portland, charter school students appear whiter and wealthier than the general student population, and they would appear less likely to have special needs.”

I cited my source on this when I submitted the story (Portland Public Schools Enrollment Summaries 1998-99 through 2007-08 — 122KB PDF). It is a factual statement. Portland charter schools are 35.2% free and reduced lunch, compared to 45.3% for the district as a whole. Charters are 13.9% special ed, compared to 14.7% district-wide; and 57.75% white, compared to 54.94% district-wide.

It might sound like splitting hairs on the racial issue, but if you factor out Self Enhancement Academy, which is 96.35% black, charter schools in Portland don’t just “appear whiter,” they are significantly so. Opal school is 74% white; Emerson, 79.4%, Portland Village, 77.42%; Trillium, 64.97%. Note that Portland Village and Trillium are both in the Jefferson attendance area, which is 69% non-white.

The “pro” piece, written by Republican state house candidate Matt Wingard, is a mealy-mouthed, factually inaccurate diatribe against a school board he sees as fighting a “loss of power.” While complaining that the PPS school board has rejected more charter schools than all other Oregon districts combined, he doesn’t bother to address the fact that of the last four applicants, three had very major problems in their applications. Here’s the paragraph that stood out as being a little, eh, factually challenged:

The board signaled this preference for fewer choices by beginning to talk about restricting transfers within the district. Board members claim that unrestricted transfers between existing public schools might be fostering segregation. But most of the parents who want to leave their “neighborhood” schools are minorities.

First, when has the board ever talked about restricting transfers? News to me, and I’ve been pounding on them to talk about this for a year now.

Second, it’s not board members making a “claim,” it was the auditors of Multnomah County and the City of Portland whose 2006 audit of the PPS transfer policy said that open transfers have increased segregation. This was reinforced by the PPS staff study that compiled hard statistical evidence showing, beyond debate, that this is the case.

Finally, I’d like to see the statistics to back up the statement “most of the parents who want to leave their ‘neighborhood’ schools are minorities.” PPS statistics, in fact, contradict this statement.

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


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