School Segregation: Where are Portland’s Civic Leaders?

by Steve, July 23rd, 2007

Steve Brand’s Op-Ed in the Oregonian last week (covered here, on Terry Olson’s blog and on Amanda Fritz’ blog) spurred quite a bit of community discussion on the issue of segregation in our Portland Public Schools. But why aren’t our civic leaders weighing in on this critical issue of Portland’s future?

For the school board, race seems to be one of those topics that aren’t discussed in polite company. Anyway, if they did, they might have to admit that their open transfer policy has encouraged segregation. Make no mistake; this is not an issue of demographics. No neighborhood in Portland is majority black, yet some schools are. This situation is a direct result of public schools policy. If we want to change the situation, we must begin by examining that policy.

Tom Potter, who ran for mayor as a supporter of public education, has been silent on this. So has the rest of the city council.

I engaged erstwhile city council candidate Fritz on her blog, and she still wants to blame families who take advantage of district policy for the problem. She also wants to blame No Child Left Behind, but refuses to go far in discussing the open transfer policy that goes well beyond what NCLB mandates. “School transfer policy is a question of degree,” writes Fritz, “and of where to draw the line with giving choices that keep families in Portland Public Schools instead of private or suburban ones.” (I guess we shouldn’t be too surprised that someone who “studied Ayn Rand thanks to Rush” would be loathe to take a position against “free choice”.)

This harks back to the original rationale for opening up transfers to keep the middle class from fleeing Portland for the ’burbs. But recent demographic changes, with massive influx of middle class families to the inner North and Northeast neighborhoods, cry out for reexamination of this policy.

This policy has resulted in divestment from public schools in neighborhoods now teeming with middle class families. As an example of this divestment, there are 655 students at Jefferson, and 662 students living in the neighborhood going to different neighborhood high schools. With funding at Jefferson averaging $5547.14 per student annually, that represents a public divestment of over $3 million dollars a year at Jefferson alone. This figure more than doubles, to more than $7 million, when you figure in the 457 students in special programs/focus options and 232 students in “Community Based Alternatives”*.

Fritz writes “I’m confident Ruth Adkins will provide needed rebalancing on the School Board, with her stance that every neighborhood school should be good enough for parents to want to send their kids there as their first choice – while also recognizing that some magnet and specialty programs can enrich the city’s educational menu offerings.”

Well, first of all, I’m a big supporter of Ruth, but I’m not so optimistic that she alone can change the strategic direction of the board, which has repeatedly and consistently shown itself to be enamored with foundation-sponsored, market-based school reform.

Secondly, this is exactly what I’m talking about in my New Deal for Portland Public Schools. (I’m going to publish a second draft soon, ammended to include a place for magnet and special focus programs.) But the only way to get there is to take a look at the open transfer policy that has taken us away from this sort of school system and continues to divest millions of dollars annually from our poorest neighborhoods.

Why won’t our civic leaders talk about this?

*Source: 2006 PPS School Enrollment and Program Data for Jefferson – Academy of Science and Technology and Jefferson – Academy of Arts and Technology. The $5547.14 figure is an average, since the two academies are funded separately.

5 Responses to “School Segregation: Where are Portland’s Civic Leaders?”

  1. Comment from Terry:

    The fact that no neighborhood in Portland is majority black (which I didn’t realize) is a devastating indictment of the district’s transfer policy.

    A couple of years ago I wrote about Portland’s declining school enrollment. A version of that post was published in the Tribune as an an op-ed piece. While it doesn’t deal directly with the transfer policy or school segregation, the implications are obvious

  2. Comment from Zarwen:

    I agree that Ruth alone will not be able to overhaul the school board, as some of her supporters seem to expect. Over the past two months, I have read many references to a “new majority” on the Board. However, I have yet to see any actual evidence of this “new majority.” I don’t think we, as constituents, should count on such a development. We may be better off acting as if nothing has changed when we strategize how to deal with the entity we call “PPS.”

  3. Comment from Himself:

    Terry: to be clear, some neighborhoods, like Humboldt, Boise and Vernon have black pluralities. Vernon, for example, is 43% black and 32.3% white. Vernon Elementary, though, is 58.7% black and only 12.1% white. These numbers are even more skewed when you consider the entire area that feeds Vernon school, including the majority white Concordia neighborhood.

    Other examples, like Beach Elementary, have populations even more disconnected with neighborhood demographics. Overlook neighborhood is 69.5% white and 9% black, but Beach is 28.2% white and 26.2% black. (Most of the balance at Beach is Hispanic, drawn by the dual-immersion Spanish program.)

    Elementary schools aside, the figures at Jefferson (65% black) are clearly out of whack with the Jefferson attendance area, which encompasses several majority white neighborhoods.

    It’s one thing when segregation is a result of demographics. It’s another thing altogether when it’s a result of district policy.

  4. Comment from Steve Buel:

    O.K. Here we go. Interesting stats on race. Two things come into play as a premise for figuring these things out. 1. As I have said many times, you all are probably sick of hearing it, but it is the starting point for every PPS decision. The School Foundation and Stand for Children run the school board by making sure there are people of their “ilk” on it, and only people of their ilk. I like Ruth Adkins but she has the same attitudes and knows, as all of them do, and as all school board members will contine to know under the present circumstances, very little about schools outside of their narrow focus. And they even know less about what to do to make them better. 2. There are four distinct school districts within PPS. The upper middle class area, Wilson, Lincoln, parts of Grant and Cleveland, the African-American area, the poor outer Southeast and the poorer parts of north Portland (essentially Marshall, Madison, and Roosevelt), and everyone else, i.e. Franklin, Mr. Tabor Middle School etc. (There are some changes coming because of immigration and Latino students increasing, but they haven’t fully taken hold yet. Some might also add the special education classes as a separate district but basically they go with the SE and North.)The point is one size does not fit all. This includes the transfer policies and the issues surrounding them. We have a school board and school leadership which only understands the upper middle class district, yet they control all the others and believe, mistakenly, that they understand them also. You have to go back to Prophet and Don McElroy before you get administrators who understand all the areas and prioritize equally across the district. The transfer mess and the Benson High mess are pretty illustrative of how little true understanding the board has about what is going on outside of their purview.

  5. Comment from Zarwen:

    Thank you, Steve, for explaining to the world why the “king-makers” refused to endorse Michele Schultz for school board! Also educational is looking at who DID endorse her: the NW Labor Council, the Mercury, and unofficially, Portland Area Rethinking Schools. It is mind-numbing to realize that the Establishment must have actually been afraid of her, which may be why they were so willing to give Ruth so much attention.

    “The transfer mess and the Benson High mess are pretty illustrative of how little true understanding the board has about what is going on outside of their purview.”
    Also check out David Wynde’s recent post on Terry’s blog, which further illustrates this point.

    Anyone still interested in a recall election?