Toward Equity in Portland Public Schools

by Steve, November 28th, 2007

Let’s forget about the Portland Public Schools’ radical transfer policy for a moment. I know I’m sick of talking about it, and we know the school board has delegated their policy-making responsibility to their brand-new superintendent to ponder for a few months. (In other words, nothing’s happening on that any time soon.)

Let’s forget about race, too, since prominent members of Portland’s black community don’t have a problem with a certain level of racial isolation in our schools. It’s never been about race for me anyway (but race is an indicator of economics, the real issue).

I’m also really bored with the charter schools debate. This is about policy, not personal choices.

So let’s talk about equity. If certain elements of Portland insist on a little piece of privilege at the expense of not only the working poor, but also an increasing segment of the middle class, let’s just take that economic issue head-on.

Portland Public Schools are grossly inequitable.

At the macro level, we have nine neighborhood high schools, spaced relatively evenly across the district. Of these, five are traditional, comprehensive high schools. The other four are split into small academies with extremely limited educational opportunities.

All of the comprehensive high schools are located in the wealthiest parts of Portland. All of the limited high schools are located in the poorest parts of Portland.

At the micro level, neighborhood elementary schools have dramatic differences in program offerings, sometimes within the same ZIP code. One school may have all the “extras” — PE, music, counseling, library, technology specialists — while the next school over has none of these, and more kids in the kindergarten room, too.

Of course school choice is supposed to address this problem, giving parents the “right” to attend a school across town if their neighborhood school doesn’t have the programs every child needs. We know that choice has instead exacerbated the problem, but I promised I wasn’t going to talk about that.

Any policy maker without a tin ear to equity would insist on a policy that seeks to reduce inequity in Portland Public Schools. If we are going to keep a radical transfer policy that causes inequity, we are going to have to invest in remediation in the form of much higher spending per student in the clusters with high out-transfers.

We’ve got to insist on an equitable school in every neighborhood. That means all nine clusters have a traditional, comprehensive high school, and equivalent enrichment programs at all neighborhood elementary schools. If anybody thinks they can do this without seriously reforming the transfer policy, I would give them my full support in trying.

Ultimately, we have to acknowledge that neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers need to be seriously curtailed, if not banned entirely, to sustain equitable schools in every neighborhood. But evidently that’s too farsighted for some to grasp.

So I’m up for putting some pressure on Carole Smith to propose a plan to remedy the gross inequities the transfer policy causes as a part of her report to the board in January. (I will be writing a letter to Smith soon, and posting it here.)