PPS School Board Dances Around the Transfer Issue

by Steve, November 7th, 2007

The Portland Public Schools Board of Education finally took up the open transfer policy, sixteen months after city and county auditors requested they clarify the purpose of the policy.

One little problem: They didn’t clarify the purpose of the policy.

Nobody on the school board, and nobody in the administration seems to have a clue why we have this policy.

The discussion began with a staff report on the policy, which came off as very defensive. I asked Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) president Jeff Miller what he thought of the presentation.

“The staff presentation resembled a promotional pitch more than a serious analysis of the student transfer policy and its consequences,” said Miller. “On an issue of such importance, a school board is entitled to expect better.”

The presentation was primarily given by Judy Brennan, the program director of the Enrollment and Transfer Center. The report carefully avoided any discussion of rationale for the policy, and glossed over the racial and economic segregation that it causes. Evidently district staff feel an 11% increase in poverty in the Roosevelt cluster and a 20% increase in racial isolation at Jefferson High is “slight.”

In order to make the PPS transfer policy look good, they compared our district to Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul , San Francisco and Seattle. And what do you know, we do look better compared to them.

They engaged a marketing research firm (for $71,000) to put together focus groups (which appeared to include very few black people), and guess what? They found lots of people who are really happy with the policy! Everybody loves school choice! (Well, 174 people do, anyway, and we paid $71,000 to find them and video tape them.) This was a major part of the presentation.

Finally, Brennan admonished against even slight changes to the policy. (It was at this point that it became very clear that she was selling the policy, not investigating it.)

The recommendations of the report are to

  1. create a standing committee of staff parents and community members (but not students, as student representative Antoinette Myers later took issue with)
  2. create a strategy for increasing familiarity with neighborhood schools
  3. implement a boundary change policy
  4. focus on diversity issues
  5. think about replicating successful programs into underserved areas, and
  6. help students who transfer.

In other words, let’s just keep dancing around the issue, and not really do anything about it.

Due to a quirk in scheduling of public comment, I had the opportunity to speak immediately after Brennan’s presentation. Here’s what I said.

Sixteen months ago, city and county auditors noted the increased racial isolation caused by the open transfer policy. They also noted that this policy is at odds with other district priorities, like strong neighborhood schools.

I presented you with my own study in September showing that this policy leads to an annual diversion of tens of millions of dollars of public investment from Portland’s neediest neighborhoods and into its wealthiest areas.

And now we have this report which fails to answer the central question first posed 16 months ago: What is the purpose of the open transfer policy?

This report completely ignores the neighborhood funding inequity my study showed, and glosses over the racial isolation and concentration of poverty the district’s research shows. The report talks about the “slight” increase of poverty. But is an 11% increase in the Jefferson cluster slight? It calls its effect on racial and ethnic concentration “similar.”

In 2006 Jefferson High had an attendance area student population that was 47.9% black, yet the school was 68.4% black. Do you really consider a 20% increase “slight?”

The study also fails to address the most egregious indirect result of the open transfer policy, our two-tiered system of high schools.

There are two kinds of neighborhood high schools in PPS: comprehensive schools, with a full range of options for all students, and schools split into academies, with limited options. Is it an accident that the rich get comprehensive schools and the poor get academies?

Finally, the report fails to address the local control of administrators over FTE budgets, which leads to gross programming differences between neighborhood schools, fueling the demand for neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

In this report, Portland is compared to other districts that seem to have been cherry picked to make Portland look good. They are called peers, even though no serious demographer would consider Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis or St. Paul to be peers of Portland.

The report relies heavily on market research, presented as if it were statistical data. Using marketing techniques instead of scientific research shows a distinct bias against discovering the truth.

The problems caused by this policy are clear. You all know them: racial and economic segregation, diversion of public investment from the neighborhoods that need it the most, a two-tiered high school system, and the fragmentation of communities.

What we don’t know is what problem this policy is supposed to solve. Instead of addressing that simple question, you’ve given us a lot of hand waving about how much better we are than Boston, how much people really like the system, and how it only “slightly” increases racial segregation and the concentration of poverty.

I say, if you have a policy that increases segregation, you darn well better have a Very Important Problem you’re solving. Why can’t any of you tell us what that Very Important Problem is?

This was followed by board discussion, which I found very interesting. I thought I saw glimmers of understanding from Dan Ryan, Dilafruz Williams, Ruth Adkins and Sonja Henning. Student rep Antoinette Myers seems to get it more than the voting members.

Dan Ryan talked of seeing that “there is equity in every neighborhood school.” Dilafruz Williams spoke of a “segregated city by race and by class.” Ruth Adkins used the term “white flight.”

After a bit of this, Sonja Henning finally cut to the chase. “I’m just still slightly confused and somewhat curious to hear from my colleagues, what do you all think the overall goal or objective is or was for this policy?” she asked. “Without some objective or goal, everything else is just talking around the surface.”

This threw things into a little bit of a tizzy. Ruth Adkins jumped in by quoting one of Brennan’s power point slides about promoting diversity, but when pressed by Henning, said “The unintended effect effect of it has been… a way for people to feel like they can escape their school if their neighborhood school isn’t good enough.”

Yes, that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? I was glad Ruth had the guts to come right out and say that. And of course, it just leads to more inequity.

Still, nobody managed to articulate a legitimate rationale for allowing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers.

But at least they talked about equity. Even Trudy Sargent got into the act on this, questioning the local control over enrichment programs, and suggesting that the board could mandate music in every school. She talked about better TAG programs in every school. “How do we make the district more fair in what’s offered to kids,” she asked, “And that’s what’s at the bottom of this, is equity across the district, so we have strong neighborhood schools in every district.”

Of course it was all lost on Bobbie Regan, whose most noteworthy contribution was in wondering if we should pay for transportation for tranfers like our “peer” districts in Boston and San Francisco do, and also if we should remove the guarantee of neighborhood schools.

But despite these glimmers of hope and understanding by a majority of board members, nobody dared ask why we would need neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers once we have programming equity.

And shockingly, as the discussion came to a close, the one change they suggested to the staff recommendations was to bump up the priority of helping students who transfer.

This was not lost on PAT president Miller.

“During their discussion, some Board members insisted that PPS could be doing more for those students who transfer,” he said. “The Board should ponder the wisdom of such a course. Encouraging more students to leave struggling schools is likely to further harm those schools.”

Which puts us back in the vicious cycle of poor schools being drained of enrollment and funding. Somehow or another, this school board, even while showing they’re just about, almost, not quite able to get it, can’t quite put all the pieces together.

Mega Developers Lose; Big Tobacco Wins

by Steve, November 7th, 2007

Oregonians are a fickle bunch. Measure 49, was approved by a larger margin than Measure 37, which it significantly modifies. It had notably large margins of victory in counties with the most Measure 37 claims.

Measure 50 went down, thanks largely to the crazy-big money from evil-big tobacco. Now the Democrats who control the state house and governor’s mansion have to do something about our unstable and insufficient state revenue stream if they really want to fund social services. I’m not holding my breath.