Erik Sten Doesn’t Get It, Part II

by Steve, October 24th, 2007

Back in July, I wrote about Erik Sten’s proposal to help schools struggling with enrollment under Portland Public Schools’ effectively segregationist transfer policy. His proposal, now official Portland city policy, gives $950,000 to the Portland Schools Foundation to dole out in $20,000 – $30,000 grants to help schools “create excitement.” This is part of the larger Schools, Families, Housing Initiative.

Sten was at the school board meeting Monday night, and went on at length about how cool it will be to “create excitement” (he used this phrase several times). He assured the board that the Portland Schools Foundation grant application process wouldn’t be daunting, and grants wouldn’t be denied on technicalities. He gushed about how he’d like to see a full-time organizer in every school in Portland.

Uh huh.

I can’t get over the feeling that Erik Sten has a very strange relationship to reality. What planet is he from?

Anyway, here’s an open letter to Sten.

Dear Commissioner Sten:

I appreciate your work on affordable housing, and also your efforts to link this issue with public schools. But I’m afraid your Schools, Families, Housing Initiative misses the mark.

The neighborhoods with the most affordable housing in Portland are in the high school clusters that have been hardest hit by the inequities of Portland Public Schools’ student transfer policy: Jefferson, Roosevelt, Madison and Marshall. If you are serious about encouraging middle class families to move into or stay in these neighborhoods and attend these schools, you need to pressure the school board to change the policy that allows literally tens of millions of dollars of public investment to flow out of these schools and into schools in neighborhoods with the least affordable housing, and then balkanizes the gutted high schools into narrowly focused “academies” with extremely limited academic offerings.

These schools don’t need organizers to “create excitement.” They need full funding and academic and extracurricular programming on par with schools in wealthier neighborhoods.

As somebody well-versed in affordable housing and poverty issues, I know you can appreciate the importance of public investment in our hardest-hit neighborhoods. Unfortunately, our school board’s policy does the opposite: it shifts public investment away from our poorest neighborhoods and into our wealthiest. For anybody concerned with issues of equitable public policy, the open transfer enrollment policy of Portland Public Schools should be an embarrassment.

Here’s a report (383 KB PDF) I presented to the school board in September, you are interested in following up on this issue.

Another problem with your initiative is the use of the Portland Schools Foundation (PSF) to disburse the funds. This organization has a serious credibility problem within parent communities in our schools. There is concern that PSF has allowed schools with large fund-raising capacity to essentially “double dip” by winning grants from the equity fund. There also been concern about the propriety of the foundation awarding a grant to one of its board members. Why are these grants not administered directly by the Bureau of Housing and Community Development?

I am also concerned that parents in our poorer schools will be intimidated by the grant writing process. Even if the process is streamlined, it is still daunting, especially to a single parent working two jobs to make ends meet. And honestly, what’s in it for them anyway?

My family has decided to leave Portland because of the inequities I’m talking about. Our neighborhood high school is Jefferson, a school I would be proud to send my children to — if it were a comprehensive, fully-funded high school. It is not, and without a fundamental change to the school board’s transfer policy, it’s not going to be. Placing a full-time community organizer there isn’t going to change this fundamental fact.

Again, I can appreciate your efforts, but trying to “create excitement” about our schools in their current state is akin to making beds in a burning house. The Portland Public Schools board of education has created a two-tiered system of public education. Fix that problem, and the excitement will come naturally.