What the Fuck is Wrong With Portland Public Schools, Pt. 2

by Steve, June 12th, 2007

Or Neoliberalism, Portland Public Schools, and the Commodification of Human Life

It’s been nearly four months since I wrote Part 1 of this essay, so I figured it’s time to let Part 2 out of my brain.

In Part 1 I focussed on Oregon’s revenue crisis, the result of a libertarian assault on the state’s ability to raise revenue in the ’90s. When discussing the state of education in Portland, one cannot overemphasize the dire effect revenue loss has had on our schools. Portland went from 15th in the nation in spending per pupil in the early ’90s to 31st in ’04-’05. We now have the fourth-worst student-teacher ratio in the nation.

In 1997, as Oregon education funding circled the drain, Jack Bierwirth departed as Portland Public Schools superintendent. What followed was a patchwork of interim leaders and failed replacements, starting with Diana Snowden who served from 1997-98. Snowden stepped down when a national search turned up Ben Canada, who turned out to be a major disappointment. Canada left in 2001, and was replaced by another interim leader, Jim Scherzinger, who ended up serving until Vicki Phillips was hired in 2004. With Phillips’ departure this year, the school board has announced the hiring of Ed Schmitt as interim superintendent while they conduct another nation-wide search. That’s six superintendents in 15 years, the same 15 years in which Portland went from top-tier school funding to bottom-tier. That’s a one-two punch we’re still reeling from.

I have detailed many of Vicki Phillips’ failures in a previous blog post. In a nutshell, Phillips brought a neoliberal philosophy of public education to Portland. This model, strongly propounded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, received strong support from the Portland Schools Foundation and the Portland business community, not to mention the school board members who hired her. (It should be no surprise to anybody who’s been paying attention that she is leaving for a job with Gates.)

So just what the hell is a neoliberal philosophy of public education? Neoliberalism is a term used by the left to criticize economic liberalism, also known globalism. The term came into wide use in the ’70s and ’80s in critiquing the way the World Bank and International Monetary Fund doled out money in the developing world, particularly Latin America. In order to qualify for aid, nations had to privatize state-owned industry and utilities and cut budget deficits, often at the expense of much-needed social programs. The US used these institutions as tools to undermine populist governments in the western hemisphere as a hedge against Soviet influence, and at the same time made them ripe for exploitation by transnational US corporations.

Neoliberalism crept into US economic policy (some would say it came home to roost) beginning with President Carter, as a response to the “stagflation” crisis. No president since, Democratic or Republican, has strayed from the neoliberal monetarist path. The Federal Reserve Bank has manipulated interest rates to favor capital exclusively, with a goal of maintaining a certain level of unemployment (with “inflation” being the code word for unemployment dipping too low). President Clinton’s sweeping “ending welfare as we know it” was perhaps the final psychological blow to Keynsianism in the US.

So “neoliberalism” has a very specific meaning with regard to macroeconomics and the regulation (or, more accurately, deregulation) of global capital. I’ve been reluctant to categorize the work of Broad and Gates as neoliberal, but there are parallels. And simply criticizing them as “right-wing” or “conservative” misses the mark.

Broadly speaking, neoliberal education policy can be thought of as creeping privatization. This comes in the form of charter and alternative schools, sometimes run by religious or for-profit organizations. It also comes in the form of setting up traditional neighborhood-based schools for failure through hard-ball labor tactics, one-size-fits-all curriculum decisions and punishment of schools that don’t meet testing standards. Market-oriented solutions are emphasized across the board. In the end, it all boils down to the commodification of human life.

The application of market theory to education is a stunningly dangerous experiment with the lives of our children, and Portland Public Schools have fallen victim to to it at the hands of Vicki Phillips, the board who hired and defended her, her friends at the Portland Schools Foundation, and her benefactors at Broad and Gates.

Portland schools are in a shambles. Many neighborhood schools have capture rates under 50%. The Jefferson Cluster is especially bleak. Obviously, something had to be done. But the neoliberal approach is to throw the baby out with the bath water. There is a cynical reading of this policy mindset that it is intended to lead to failure and ultimately to vouchers. I don’t buy into that theory, but the effect is the same: Our schools and our children are worse for the wear as Vicki Phillips rides off into the sunset.

I have some hope that with the board members who supported Phillips now in the minority, we can have an honest examination of the way forward. New board member Ruth Adkins is a founder of the Neighborhood Schools Alliance, a group founded in response to the closing of neighborhood schools.

I sincerely believe that the model that worked for generations — kids going to school with their neighbors in small-to-medium schools within walking distance of their homes — can still work today. We have the infrastructure in place, we just need leaders who can visualize it and see it through. Of course, stable and adequate funding wouldn’t hurt, either. See Part 1. Sigh.