PPS and Open Transfers: Slaughtering the Sacred Cow

by Steve, August 29th, 2007

I’m struggling to figure out why it is, and when it became so, that open transfers are sacrosanct in Portland Public Schools. Even after Multnomah County Auditor Suzanne Flynn and Portland City Auditor Gary Blackmer condemned the PPS policy in June of 2006, noting that “the transfer policy competes with other Board policies such as strong neighborhood schools and investing in poor performing schools,” Portland’s school leaders are still loathe to even discuss curtailing the open transfer policy.

Not surprisingly, my search for answers leads me to a familiar old nemesis: Vicki Phillips. In her response to the searing Flynn-Blackmer audit (included at the end of the audit report linked above), Phillips shows her cards early by capitalizing the phrase “School Choice.” This is, after all, a capital idea in the corporate-funded free-market schools agenda.

Phillips notes in her response “[t]he majority of our transfer requests are for transfers from one neighborhood school to another. A major consequence of this practice is the increasingly intense competition among neighborhood schools to attract students.” She prances around the issue, asks a lot of questions we already know the answers to (“Why do students and parents make these requests? …what is the impact on neighborhoods within our city of allowing the current level of transfers?”), but leaves off the most important one. If we have strong and equitable neighborhood schools, why do we need neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers?

This question is especially poignant given that the audit report “found that there was significantly less socio-economic diversity in schools than would be the case if all students attended their neighborhood school.” (Something I’ve pointed out myself on this blog.)

There is only one reason I can come up with for the sanctity of open transfers. Vicki Phillips was hell-bent on creating a model “free market” school district in Portland, with the generous help of the free marketeers at the Gates and Broad foundations. Unfortunately, what she left behind is a segregated, uneven hodge-podge of failing experiments. Her supporters on the school board invested a lot of political capital in supporting her, and are afraid now to admit they made a mistake.

I know it’s hard to admit when you’ve got it wrong, and the further you go down the wrong road, the harder it is to turn back. But it’s never to late to do so.

You don’t have to look far to see a school district doing it right, with results to show for it. In Beaverton, there are no transfers in elementary school. Every school has the same programs. Vicki wonders why students opt for transfers? I’ll tell you why: the schools in poor neighborhoods don’t have the options the richer neighborhood schools offer. It’s so flippin’ obvious, it’s an insult to even ask the question.

My proposal: start with the elementary schools. Equalize programs across all neighborhoods. Either every school has music, art and PE (or some combination) or none of them do. Curtail all neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers immediately. It is time to finally slaughter that sacred cow. Remove any legitimate reason to transfer, and then remove the ability to transfer.

Once we have equitable, integrated elementary schools, we can work our way up to middle schools and high schools, which are admittedly harder problems. But still, the same approach should be taken. It’s time to admit that the “free market” is no way to run our public schools. Chalk it up as a failed experiment and get back to what we know can work: equal opportunities and spending across all of Portland’s neighborhoods.

26 Responses to “PPS and Open Transfers: Slaughtering the Sacred Cow”

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    I have never worried much about having more options for kids but you are making a great case. I think the reason that Phillips and now the school board want to keep the open transfer policy is because the people that pick them, upper middle class Portland, want to keep their options open. They want an open transfer in case their school has problems, (bad 4th grade teachers, a rotten principal, poor peers in their kid’s grade and innumerable other problems that can come up).

    I still like to apply the “who does it benefit card” first when analyzing what is happening in the district. If it benefits SFC and TSF and company then it is the way it will go, and when some thing go a certain way it is the reason it goes that way — way, way more often than not.

    So for years I have argued to “fix” the worst schools, but they just don’t want to do it. They don’t care one whit about them. So this makes your argument very persuasive.

    A great example of how short-sighted the school board is was in the newspaper article on teacher hiring — how Portland hires later than everyone else. Well, guess who has a much smaller pool to draw from, hence the strongest teachers Portland gets are ones who like the city, but once you get through them you get into ones which are not so good. The best teachers often move to the schools which are easier to teach in because of the behavior of the kids. Can’t blame them really, nor can you blame the principals for wanting the best teachers in their building and hiring from within particularly since the ones waiting around until mid-August are often not the cream of the crop — those have been picked up by the suburbs.

    For about 30 years I have put forth a partial solution for this problem (one which didn’t even require a change in the union supported transfer policy — though they should move the timelines way ahead) , but the people running the district won’t look at it. Instead they pay $20,000 to a consultant to tell them they have a problem which I identified 30 years ago as a school board member. Anyone who paid any attention at all could have told them that for free.

  2. Comment from Kari Chisholm:

    Fascinating post. Thank you.

    I haven’t thought a lot about this, since my first child won’t be arriving for a few more months yet, but it seems to me that there are legit reasons for a transfer and non-legit reasons.

    For example, if a family moves across town with one year left in a kid’s elementary school tenure, it makes sense to me that we should let the kid stay in “her” school for one last year.

    Another thing – our house is assigned to one particular school zone, but we’re closer to another school. Maybe that’s not a legit reason to request a transfer, but I wonder if the rules might be different for transfers to a neighboring school versus transfers across town.

    I suspect we might get farther if there were some kind of system that allowed transfers – but only when the in-transfers equal the out-transfers for each school, within some tolerable range. If 20 kids want in to a particular school, and 20 kids want out, it seems reasonable to me.

    I’m certainly in favor of ensuring socio-economic and educational equity across schools — but there are other factors as well, educational, developmental, psychological. It’s all about what’s best for individual kids and what’s best for all kids together.

    Anyway, you’ve sparked some thinking. Good work.

  3. Comment from Nicole:

    I agree with the ideas for limiting transfers, but as part of that project school boundaries need to be examined districtwide. There are many areas where school attendance areas have been drawn so that families are not assigned to their closest neighborhood school or children have to cross a major traffic street to get to school.

    Our neighborhood school (Applegate) was shut down a few years ago and our next closest school (Ockley Green) was converted to a magnet school. Our newly assigned neighborhood school was not in our neighborhood and was located on the other side of a state highway. We transferred into Humboldt. Transfering to our closest neighborhood school allows us to bike or walk to school and we can be more involved as school volunteers.

    For a system of neighborhood schools to work, families need to be assigned to a school that is actually in or close to their neighborhood. It’s better for the environment, decreases traffic congestion, promotes childhood wellness, and increases parent and community support in the schools.

  4. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    I think everyone knows that Himself and I transferred our kids to the next neighborhood school over from us — we cross one busy street instead of two this way, and it’s equal distance from our assigned school.

    (If we lived one block north we’d be assigned to the school we’re now attending.)

    Our neighborhood school is a special-focus, with a school-within-a-school. But if you’re not interested in the special focus (we weren’t. It wasn’t a good fit for our daughter. It was a frickin’ disaster, to be honest) the neighborhood school gets starved out by the “special” school and chaos and resentment reign.

    I’m with Nicole — the boundaries need to be redrawn.

  5. Comment from Neisha:

    You guys have probably already seen these numbers, but the Beaverton district as a whole is slightly less diverse than PPS (60% white vs. 55% white). However, within schools it seems to be quite a bit more integrated. For example, the “whitest” elementary in Beaverton is 80% white, and there is only one. On the other hand, there are several neighborhood elementary schools that are more than 80% white in Portland. Hmm.

    Here are similar reports put out by both districts:



    (I looked at the 2006 Enrollment Summary for PPS.)

  6. Comment from Himself:

    I’m seeing more and more that Portland needs to look at how Beaverton does things rather than how other urban districts do things.

    Beaverton is also of similar size (37,000 students compared to 46,000 in Portland).

    Take a look at the atrocities committed at urban districts like Chicago and Los Angeles by the free marketeers (for whom charter schools are the answer to everybody’s problems), then look at how Beaverton has weathered the same budget cuts as Portland.

    Beaverton’s response has been measured, fair, and equitable. Portland’s has been ad hoc, unfair and inequitable.

  7. Comment from Neisha:

    Yup, and don’t forget about New York, the nation’s largest district. Here are some links that describe the current chaos there:



    And didn’t they sell off a bunch of schools in Philadelphia to some private company? Oh yeah, and they’re doing something similar in New Orleans in the wake of the destruction there.

    Let’s not emulate all the other big urban districts!

  8. Comment from Ben:

    Amen to the following comments –

    “Unfortunately, what she left behind is a segregated, uneven hodge-podge of failing experiments. Her supporters on the school board invested a lot of political capital in supporting her, and are afraid now to admit they made a mistake.

    I know it’s hard to admit when you’ve got it wrong, and the further you go down the wrong road, the harder it is to turn back. But it’s never to late to do so.”

    “So for years I have argued to “fix” the worst schools, but they just don’t want to do it. They don’t care one whit about them.”

    I argued publicly to make the clusters places you want to be a part of verse a place you want to run from. Madison Cluster has just been shuffled, not invested in and fixed. Most parents would want their children at smaller, more focused schools. Why do families transfer out of Madison and into Grant where there are 3x the number of students? Fix the clusters and people won’t care about transferring.

  9. Comment from Betsy:

    To address Steve Buel’s point about the teacher hiring policies currently in place – it’s not the school board/district that’s supporting the current policy, it’s the teacher’s union. I bet if you scratch the surface a little, you’d find that the district has long wanted to address the current convoluted hiring practice – and you can bet that it’ll be an issue that gets addressed during the upcoming teacher contract negotiations.

    So if there’s any pressure to bear? Look at the union, not the district.

  10. Comment from marcia:

    I don’t entirely agree Betsy. The contract protects teachers by allowing hiring and teacher transfers within certain perameters. The District sets the time line. The union is often nudging them along to get a schedule and get things moving for the hiring rounds.

  11. Comment from Zarwen:

    Neisha, you mentioned Philadelphia selling off their schools? That has been going on here too, but in a slightly different form. The Board closes the schools, and then the buildings and properties are sold to developers. Kennedy, Glenhaven, Washington, and Linnton come to mind. Also, Fulton Park is now owned by PP&R, and Kerns is now a private school. I am sure there are many ohter examples. Susan Hagmeier posted on this subject on blueoregon, with a very long list, which I would like to research thoroughly if I ever get the time. Mincberg announced that Rose City Park would be next, and I am sure they won’t stop there.

    It’s enough to make me entertain the notion that the real reason behind all these K-8 conversions was to benefit property developers.

  12. Comment from marcia:

    It irks me every time I drive past Kenton and see it being worked on as it becomes DeLaSalle Catholic School, and then past the former DeLaSalle site, which is a spanking brand new charter school. …..Creating competetion for the neighborhood schools (that have so far survived closure..)..this is the Broad Foundation’s agenda being implemented…and I am sure there were lots of back-room meetings regarding this whole scenario before Kenton was closed…Of course nobody will ever admit to that.

  13. Comment from Zarwen:


    Do you know what the FORMER DeLaSalle site was before it was DeLaSalle?

    I can add a few more to the list: Edwards is leased by MESD for a Head Start school. Wilcox is leased to an alternative program. Collins View became Riverdale HS via long-term lease to the neighboring district, and Terwilliger is now the French International School, also via long-term lease. Normandale also was long-term leased and ultimately purchased by the lessee.

    When Kerns and Normandale were closed, Laurelhurst had to set up “temporary” portable classrooms to take in all the new students. The “temporary” portables are still there, probably to accommodate the 27% of the students who are transfers-in (yes, I double-checked that figure).

    In the meantime, PPS refuses to lease Smith and Applegate to interested charter concerns, even though they have the approval to operate within the district.

    Who cares about schoolchildren? It’s all about profits and politics!

  14. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    What is going on with Applegate? I thought they were doing a bunch of work on it.

    De La Salle (now Waldorf charter) was Queen of Peace Catholic school before that, yes?

  15. Comment from marcia:

    I believe you’re right Wacky Mommy.

  16. Comment from Zarwen:

    So does the Catholic Church still own it? Are THEY leasing it to a charter school???

    Has PPS finally leased Applegate then? Two different charters tried to lease it last spring. Mincberg said they didn’t offer enough $ and that was why PPS said no.

  17. Comment from Vespabelle:

    the posting by Sue Hagmeier on this topic is here: http://www.blueoregon.com/2007.....schoo.html

    My elementary school closed in 1978. Since then it’s been rented to a private school (Preschool-4th grade)
    My middle school closed in 2006 and is now a charter school. (the kids in the district now feed into one middle school with 1,200 kids! scary!)
    My high school closed in 1991 and has since housed a public alternative program (for dropout types), a private religious school and now a hoity toity middle school.

  18. Comment from BeaumontWilshireResident:

    So, it isn’t just the folks in the Beaumont-Wilshire Neighborhood Association that want to change the boundaries so that their homes are assigned to the schools that are closest to them! Why isn’t Steve Brand showing up here calling Kari, Nicole or WackyMommy gentrifying segregationists too?

  19. Comment from Himself:

    I can’t speak for Steve Brand, but I think what he criticized was one neighborhood group trying to change the boundaries just for themselves.

    What’s being discussed here is the elimination of neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, which would require a district-wide reevaluation of attendance boundaries, special focus programs, and exceptions to the rule.

    I understand your frustration, but I hope you can see the critical differences in what’s being discussed here and what Steve Brand was talking about.

  20. Comment from marcia:

    I guess what makes me really mad about Kenton closing, was we didn’t even get a McMenamins out of the deal. We just got a bigger catholic school and another charter. DANG! (just musing) If they could work a deal with McMenamins to locate in all the closed buildings, maybe we’d shut up.

  21. Comment from Himself:

    Don’t get me started on McMenamin’s again.

  22. Comment from BeaumontWilshireResident:


    Steve Brand was pointing the finger at a group of neighbors/parents instead of at the real problem causing segregation in PPS – the ultra liberal transfer policy. And he could just as easily point the finger of blame at these other parents who participate in the neighborhood to neighborhood transfers (instead of addressing the real issue). I’m all for shutting down the ultra liberal transfer policy and looking at the boundaries district wide. I hate to pull the ‘just one person’ card out, but at least a few of us in our neighborhood stood up and said ‘enough is enough’. All we can do is point out our personal situation (the board’s blunder in closing our neighborhood school and not addressing the boundaries). Can one small group of people really ask the board to make a broader policy sort of change and expect any real result? Maybe more people in other neighborhoods with similar situations should do what we’ve done. You might disagree with me, and I feel like if you can personalize your concerns in voicing them to board members, it can be more impactful. Can you see how our questioning the board about the Meek closure and the lack of boundary change might just get them thinking about the bigger picture? Or how one neighbor’s speech about the transfer numbers in our neighborhood paints a picture of disconnection with the currently assigned schools? What makes the other parents on this blog (admitting to participating in the neighborhood to neighborhood transfers) so different from me or my neighbors? Are they doing what they feel is best for themselves/their children and not necessarily the entire PPS population? Hmmm!

  23. Comment from Himself:

    BeamontWilshire, we’re allies, I believe. I think we all want what’s best for our kids, and are doing the best thing we know how to make it better (or keep it from getting worse).

    I invite you all to join the Neighborhood Schools Alliance, and give common voice to our common concerns.

    As far as an animosity amongst concerned parents, I suggest folks read this.

  24. Comment from marcia:

    Pronunciation: k&-‘n&n-dr&m
    Function: noun
    Etymology: origin unknown
    1 : a riddle whose answer is or involves a pun
    2 a : a question or problem having only a conjectural answer b : an intricate and difficult problem

    That’s what we’ve got. I remember when my kids were entering fourth and second grade at Peninsula…and I (being the the visionary I am..) was looking ahead to middle school and saw Portsmouth looming…and that was NOt an option at the time…So we went to MLC which was a perfect fit for my hippie family….BUT…looking BACK I see that in making that choice, I robbed my neighborhood school of 2 very bright kids and 2 involved parents…But..what was I to do? I also remember the dismay of the Peninsula principal at the time…and a couple of teachers…Now I am a teacher at a North Portland school…we accept lots of transfers…some of our best families, by the way..and the transfers keep our numbers up…Also…now that we are going to K-8…some kids are choosing to leave at middle school and yes…we feel the pain…SO……looking at this conundrum from both sides…I can only say…What is the solution? I do not know. And I don’t think anyone else does, really. Fix all the schools…fix poverty…fix the dysfunctional society we live in? ??? Where do we start?
    And Hockey God…sorry about the McMenamins allusion…I forgot I was dealing with a PBR boy.

  25. Comment from Himself:

    I actually like what the McMenamins do architecturally. And since many of their joints have liquor now, I don’t have to drink their micro-swill. But damn, their food sucks. Ah, well, kudos to them for preserving/restoring old buildings at least.

  26. Comment from marcia:

    I agree…on the buildings…and the terrible food.