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.

7 Responses to “Sten Doesn’t Get It Either”

  1. Comment from Jack Bog:

    I think most upper-middle class folks and higher have pretty much given up on the public schools in Portland. There’s too much drama, all the time. If you can afford a private school that you know does a good job and you know isn’t going to be threatened with closure every other year, that’s how it’s done any more. Too bad.

    Don’t let Sten get too involved in the schools. He has screwed up everything he’s meddled with.

  2. Comment from Himself:

    If you can afford a private school…

    Which leaves the rest of us (i.e. the majority of Portland)… where?

    Some of us haven’t given up on PPS, and we’re going to keep working to reverse its policies that rob from poor neighborhoods and give to the rich. There’s no reason Portland can’t have a great school system that works for everybody. We just need the political will to make it so.

  3. Comment from Joe Hill:

    Today’s Oregonian says:

    “Most of the money, $950,000, will go to the Portland Schools Foundation for grants aimed at promoting neighborhood schools.”

    Given the Portland Schools Foundation’s track record on supporting charter schools, the so-called “school choice” movement, etc., this is analogous to giving Michael Vick a medium-size grant to promote animal welfare.

  4. Comment from Zarwen:

    I agree. What will the requirements be for these “grants,” and who will qualify? Sten might have good intentions, but giving $ to PSF guarantees it will not go where he intends it to go. Just more “business as usual” over at PSF. Oh, and be sure to check out Beth Slovic’s interview with Connie van Brunt on

  5. Comment from Terry:

    Ruth Adkins has been a big fan of Sten’s initiatives to provide low cost housing to stem the flow of families from Portland. I have, too. But I agree that this proposal does too little to address the problem of enrollment loss in low income inner city schools.

    I’m surprised that he wants to give such a relatively large sum to the Portland Schools Foundation. I think that he needs some educating on the role of the Foundation in local school politics.

    BTW, I’d advise you to ignore anything Jack Bog has to say about the city or Erik Sten, or “Opie”, as he calls him. He’s a cynic of he worst sort. I noticed that you used one of his favorite appellations for Sam “the Tram” Adams in a recent post. At the same time, Wacky called him a breath of fresh air. I sincerely think not.

    Contrary to Jack’s warning, I believe Sten is someone we can work with to improve public education in Portland.

  6. Comment from Himself:

    I haven’t been a big fan of Sten in general. I like his idealism, but his execution is lacking. And he doesn’t appear well-informed about the nature and scope of the problems with PPS (of course, that also describes some members of the school board).

    I just want one leader — a school board member, city or county commissioner, metro councilor, business leader, anyone — to come right out and acknowledge that open transfers have created a segregated school system with state funding flowing freely out of Portland’s poorest neighborhoods and into the richest. Again, I point out: we don’t have a black majority attendance area in Portland, but we do have majority black schools.

    School closures, segregation and inequity in Portland are not about demographics. This is about PPS policy. If you want to keep state tax revenue in these neighborhoods, you’ve got to address the transfer policy.

    Now, if Sten can be educated, I’m all for working with him.

    Here are some tips, Eric. First, don’t give the dough to PSF. If you do, make damn sure you watch what they do with it. Joe Hill nailed it above.

    If you want to invest in new schools, forget about SoWhat. Maybe start with a model neighborhood elementary school on the Whitaker site instead.

    Most of all, if you want to help Portland Public Schools, challenge the school board to do the right thing. Call them out on the policy that robs state dollars from our working-class neighborhoods and gives it to the rich.

  7. Comment from Anne T:

    What I noticed about Sten’s proposal is that he wanted to help fund building a new school in the Pearl
    District that would attract “wealthy parents” who might move to the Pearl. I cannot begin to talk about how stupid this is…but for a start let’s talk about what schools are near there: Chapman, MLC and Emerson. Then ask a few simple questions: are over 50 children even living in the Pearl now? Were they planning on starting a school for dogs, because there are more dogs than children there? And what real estate developer has Sten promised this contract to?
    Everyone’s comments about the destruct role of PSF and the utter disappointment of Sten thinking that PSF actually speaks for the public schools around here was absolutely right.
    Anne T