Sten Doesn’t Get It Either

by Steve, July 26th, 2007

Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten laid out his $1.6 million plan to help avert neighborhood school shutdowns yesterday, and the details show that he — like other Portland civic leaders — misidentifies the cause of the problem as demographics, and doesn’t fully understand the nature and scope of the problem.

His plan has three prongs: Schools, Families and Housing. The schools part is the biggest, giving $950,000 to the Portland Schools Foundation to dole out as grants to neighborhood schools to promote themselves.

Sten’s plan also throws $450,000 toward rental assistance to help families stay in gentrifying neighborhoods and $200,000 for home buyer assistance. Worthy causes, but a drop in the bucket compared to the scope of the problem.

Sten claims the money spent will more than pay off in terms student retention and the state tax dollars that don’t leave. This may be true, but it is absurd to expect it have any significant affect on the pattern of school funding flowing out of our poorest neighborhoods and into the wealthier schools.

The folly of this as policy to save neighborhood schools is obvious to anybody who’s paying attention. As I documented here the other day, Jefferson High alone loses over $3 million dollars a year due to Portland Public Schools open transfer policy. Throwing less than a million at the entire district? Not much help, Erik.

So why, oh why, can’t anybody in power talk about the real problem here? The housing situation is bad and getting worse for poor families, granted. But the real reason neighborhood schools are losing enrollment is intra-district transfers, encouraged by PPS policy. A million dollars spread across the district will do almost nothing to bolster neighborhood schools in our poorest neighborhoods.

It all amounts to a lot of hand-waving platitudes. See! We care about our po’ folks in Portland! Here, you can apply for a grant from PSF to clean up your school and attract those gentrifying yuppies (who ain’t gonna set foot in a majority black school anyway, much less consider sending their kids there).

Seriously, folks, we need a comprehensive review of the PPS open transfer policy. It’s the only way to reinvest in our poorest neighborhoods, as I first pointed out in A New Deal for Portland Public Schools.