A New Deal for Portland Public Schools

by Steve, July 18th, 2007

Portland Public Schools (like the Winter Hawks) are at a turning point. In many ways, the Portland District seems near collapse. Glaring funding inequities plague the poorest neighborhoods of Portland, with public schools closed and merged and buildings leased out to the highest parochial school bidder. Schools are segregated economically and racially — especially in middle and high schools — to a degree disproportionate to neighborhood populations.

The causes of this are threefold and self-reinforcing. Funding, which I’ve addressed at some length here before, has been largely out of PPS policy makers’ hands. But available funding is not distributed equally among neighborhoods.

Second is the district’s liberal school choice policy, which allows middle class families to flee their “failing” neighborhood schools. Since schools are funded on a per-student basis, this means that over time district funding has shifted dramatically to wealthier neighborhoods. Capture rates of under 50% are common in poor neighborhoods, while schools like Grant and Lincoln are packed to the gills.

As schools in working class neighborhoods become disproportionately filled with poorer children, whose families can’t afford to transport their children across town, test scores go down, and even more families transfer out. Principals use what discretionary money they have not for music and art, but for literacy help, since their populations have a disproportionate need. Better-off families see schools in other neighborhoods with art, music and P.E. and see little choice but to transfer. Hence the cycle fuels itself, leaving many schools in a death spiral they cannot escape without major transfer policy change.

Finally, recent grant-funded efforts to “fix” the schools in poorer neighborhoods in the mold cast by the Gates and Broad Foundations have done nothing but encourage this flow of students and funding out of neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland. Rushed closings and reconfiguration have particularly fouled up the Jefferson cluster, making it even less likely to attract neighborhood families. (Again, I’ve covered this before).

Forget K-8; there’s no way we can offer our middle schoolers the choices they need in K-8 schools. Vicki Phillips’ assertion that K-8 would lead to more music for middle schoolers is absurd. Unless she means sixth, seventh and eighth graders sharing a half-time general music teacher with the elementary kids.

Forget “academies”.

We need to turn quickly and decisively away from the recent failed experiments in corporate foundation-sponsored reconfiguration. This direction has only made the problem worse. (If we keep trying the same thing and expect different results, what does that say about us? I’ve written about foundation-funded “neoliberal” school reform at PPS here.)

The result of all this is a two-tiered public school system, segregated by neighborhood, race and economics.

It is time for a New Deal for Portland Public Schools. We need to reinvest in the neighborhoods and families that have suffered years of divestment due to statewide tax policy, self-destructive school choice policies, and recent closures and reconfiguration. This reinvestment must be guided by principles of city-wide equity and fairness.

My New Deal imagines a system where every neighborhood has a first rate elementary school, with functional buildings and small classes. Middle and high schools all offer a full slate of electives and extra curricular activities, including art, instrumental and vocal music, athletics, a newspaper, a year book, and a theatre program.

How can we do this? What if funding and students couldn’t freely flow from working class neighborhoods to upper middle class neighborhoods, but was allocated in proportion to eligible neighborhood populations? Transfers could be possible for extenuating circumstances, but there would be little incentive to transfer.

There are no magnet schools. Every school is a magnet, because it has no less than any other school in terms of facilities, staff or funding. If we can’t afford all of the “extras” at all of the schools, nobody gets them. I’m talking about total equality of funding, facilities, and programs in proportion to neighborhood population.

That’s my New Deal for PPS: reconsider school choice, and reinvest in our neighborhood schools. Focus first on the North and Northeast neighborhoods that have been hardest hit by school choice. Make these schools shining examples of fundamental good neighborhood schools. As much as possible, roll back the recent damage wrought by over-dependence on corporate grant money and work at the state and local levels to insure stable and adequate funding.

Of course, it’s not such a “new” deal. This is what I had growing up. It’s really not radical at all. And best of all, it works!

The PPS school board is searching for a new superintendent and soliciting community input for hiring criteria. Now would be a very good time to let them know if you support a change of policy to create fair, equitable neighborhood school funding: A New Deal for PPS.

13 Responses to “A New Deal for Portland Public Schools”

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    These are great comments. You really laid out an interesting plan. Makes a lot of sense though I would have to talk in depth with you to know the exact degree to which I would agree. Some things I could add. First, the outer Southeast has been hit as hard or harder than North Portland. Their schools are certainly as equally miserable as any in North Portland. Second, the destruction of Benson has been horrible and is the best example of how the school board has no serious understanding of what goes on and what works outside of their own social circle. Third, the first step for the PPS School Board should be to make a REAL definition of what a good education entails at each level, then use that as their guide to creating schools that work in ALL neighborhoods. The rediculousness of the testing as the guide, which is the case now, makes for incredibly short-sighted and unsound education.

  2. Comment from beaumontwilshireresident:

    Why don’t we change the fund raising too? Right now, 95% of money raised by each school goes back to the school – with only 5% going into bucket for other schools. Why not change that to be more equitable between the schools – Like 95% going into the bucket for all schools and 5% going directly to the fund raising school?

    I just love how the district tells people that they closed an elementary school (like Meek in our neighborhood) to save money, yet one year after it’s closed they reopen it as an alternative high school. Just how much did the district save? Didn’t they have to retro-fit the elementary schools to make them useable for much older (and taller) kids?

  3. Comment from Zarwen:


    You are correct about Meek but not about the fund-raising formula. Under PSF rules, which have existed since the PSF was founded, only 2/3 of the $ stays at the school where is was raised. The other 1/3 goes to the PSF to be disbursed (supposedly) to other schools via grants. So if the low-income schools do not apply for AND WIN these grants, they get nothing. I have never understood the merits of making low-income schools compete with each other for PSF $, but Steve Buel, our friend who commented above, posted an explanation on blueoregon about how all this works. THanks Steve!

  4. Comment from Himself:

    Regarding sharing of fund raising money, I believe this only applies to money used to hire certified teaching staff.

    In other words, if a PTA wants to raise money to hire a music teacher, they’ve got to tithe a 1/3.

    If they want to raise money to build a playground or higher non-certified teachers for an after school enrichment program, they keep it all.

  5. Comment from Nancy Smith:

    Steve: I absolutely positively agree with your New Deal; this is one of the best posts I’ve ever read!

    Magnet schools could still be offered, however, for very specialized programs without harming neighborhood schools, as long as neighborhood-school to neighborhood-school transfers are eliminated (assuming all neighborhood schools have equitable curriculum opportunities) and there is complete equal access to magnet programs for every PPS student.

    Please submit this as a guest column to the Oregonian!

  6. Comment from beaumontwilshireresident:

    It was a parent on the Alameda Site Council that gave me those percentages relating to monies raised at their auction. I didn’t get it from an official source, so sorry if I didn’t have it 100% right. Still, the point I was trying to make was: I think the ‘wealthier’ schools are able to raise a good deal more money than the economically disadvantaged – so why not make most of the money go into a ‘bucket’ that gets divided equally between all of the schools? Would this not be more equitable? I don’t agree with applying for grants. If the school raising the money can use the money for whatever they want, then so should the other schools receive an equal share for whatever they want.

  7. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Beaumontwilshire resident, Bingo! No grants from The School Foundation, divide the one third up fairly between the “have nots” and let each school decide how to best spend the funds with no restrictions. Why should some people sitting up in the West Hills decide how the money should be spent at Lents grade school in the way out Southeast. Heck they probably have never even been there. Why should they have the control? I would be much more willing to trust the judgement of the principal, the teachers and staff and the parents in that neighborhood about how to best spend money at their school. After all, it is not a fortune anyway.

  8. Comment from beaumontwilshireresident:

    Splitting hairs, but I would advocate for the 2/3 (or more) to go into the bucket for other schools and the 1/3 (or less) to go to the school raising the funds.

  9. Comment from Zarwen:

    Thanks, Steve, you really nailed it. Why indeed! No wonder VP didn’t hold back in giving those schools the same cavalier treatment. What is most egregious and disgusting is that there are PARENTS on the PSF board making these decisions. How would they feel if their roles were reversed?

  10. Comment from Himself:

    Thanks all for the comments. I’m going to publish a second draft soon, incorporating Nancy Smith’s thoughts about magnet schools. Constructive criticism like this is exactly what I’m looking for!

  11. Comment from Humboldt parent:

    Wow! Thanks for the debate about a New Deal for PPS and changes to the Portland Schools Foundation funding distribution. It’s ideas like these that will make great schools possible for all our children, not just the privileged few.

  12. Comment from Humboldt parent:

    As long as enrollment is declining, PPS should not approve any new charter schools either. Charter schools divert enrollment from existing neighborhood schools, which then become targets for closure. In the Jefferson neighborhood PPS has approved at least three charter schools (Village Waldorf k-8th,Trillium k-12th, SEI 6th-8th), while closing three neighborhood schools (Kenton k-5, Applegate k-5, Tubman 6-8).

    And another group recently submitted an application for a Montessori charter school in N/NE that would open in 2008. (www.theivyschool.org)

    We have enough charter schools. I agree that the school board needs to focus more on making sure every neighborhood school is first-rate.

  13. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Humboldt Parent, hear hear! Several people have asked me lately about the new charters — not one has asked me about the neighborhood schools. Everyone loves something shiny and new, I guess. Until it doesn’t work.

    I should wear a button that says, “Ask Me About Our Neighborhood Schools!”