What the Fuck is Wrong With Portland Public Schools, Pt. 1

by Steve, February 18th, 2007

Portland was once admired among cities for the fact that the middle classes had not yet given up on its public schools. But after a series of ballot measures in the ’90s requiring severe property tax limitations, a major economic downturn, and a complete lack of leadership from two Democratic governors (not to mention a Republican state house with a strong libertarian bias against public anything), Portland’s public schools seem to be throwing in the towel.

Today, in part one, I focus on the funding crisis.

In 1990, Oregonians voted “yes” on Measure 5, which ultimately capped property taxes at $5 per $1000 of value (down from $33 in some districts). Measure 5 also shifted control of funding to the state in order to equalize funding across districts.

Portland (and other districts) immediately responded by cutting art, P.E., music, character programs, school counseling and more. But this little bit of libertarian ingenuity brought to us by Bill Sizemore was just the beginning.

With schools showing signs of stress and the economy showing signs of rapid growth in 1996, Sizemore again convinced the voters of Oregon to not only further limit property taxes by capping increases at 3 percent per year (as property rates began to grow at much higher rates), but also brought in Oregon’s so-called “double majority” law. Measure 47 enacted the law that requires 50 percent voter turnout for local tax increase measures, making it all but impossible to replace lost revenue, especially in special or off-year elections.

Hardy Myers, Oregon’s Democratic Attorney General, offered the best possible interpretation and offered up a stunning $277 million in cuts. Sizemore wanted nearly half a billion, and he and the voters of Oregon brought us Measure 50 in 1997, which ensured that Measure 47 was interpreted in the most draconian way possible.

Many tax payers rejoiced, none more than huge commercial real estate holders. It went largely unnoticed that as private home values soared, commercial property values leveled and even dipped. Big business cashed in twice, as their tax rates plummeted and again as their property values cooled off on their own. Not only were the people of Oregon slashing their own share of education funding, they were virtually eliminating business’s contribution, dramatically shifting the burden almost entirely onto private citizens.

In the 1990s, Oregon’s national ranking in school funding per student fell from 15th to 20th. Measure 47 stuck a corkscrew in school funding that guaranteed continuing cuts, and by 2003 Oregon had dropped to 31st in the nation, just ahead of Texas.

Citizens of Portland eventually emerged from a tax-slashing haze and realized something was wrong. In 2002 Multnomah County citizens passed a three-year, 1.25% personal income tax to stave off drastic cuts, which would have included massive layoffs and a reduction in the length of the school year. When this measure expired, more band-aids were applied without addressing the root of the problem.

The Republican Oregon legislature has done nothing to address the dire situation, and two Democratic governors, John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski, have failed to address the fundamental problem we have: We do not have an adequate, stable source of school funding in the state of Oregon. Lip service about the value of education in society is meaningless if we do not have a foundation to build it on.

Meanwhile, with revenues reduced to a trickle, schools in Portland and cities across the nation have been re-segregating. Many districts, including Portland, implemented liberal school choice policies in an effort to keep middle class families from fleeing the public schools altogether. Instead, the districts effectively encouraged the middle class to selectively flee inner city schools, transferring their children to public schools in more affluent, racially and economically homogeneous neighborhoods. Struggling schools struggled more as the funding followed the students to the wealthier neighborhoods, and many of these left-behind schools were designated as “failing schools” under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

In Portland, school closures have been heaviest in minority neighborhoods, where white flight from the schools has taken its greatest toll. The district has struggled to find decent leadership, and has made many questionable and controversial decisions regarding Portland’s “other” schools, the schools the middle class has abandoned. In Part 2, I will take a look the district’s leadership vacuum, and the ways they seem to be pushing these schools even closer to failure.

5 Responses to “What the Fuck is Wrong With Portland Public Schools, Pt. 1”

  1. Comment from lucy_lucy:

    where’s part II?

  2. Comment from Himself:

    Part II hasn’t escaped my brain yet. Sorry.

  3. Comment from Himself:

    Part 2 is now available!

  4. Comment from KMT:

    This is EXACTLY why, although offered a position within a company offering approximately 25% more than I’m making now, I decided not to take the plunge and move back to Portland. I just couldn’t do it to my kids.

  5. Comment from Wacky Mommy:


    I’ve talked with so many parents (whose kids are attending schools outside their neighborhoods) and every blessed one of them has done this whole martyr trip about “I’m willing to make the SACRIFICE of driving them… Some people DON’T CARE enough…” etc. And I’m like — You’re missing the point.

    We’re having a huge break-down of community here in Portland. We don’t know each other, because no one is going to school with anyone from their block. It’s tragic.