Resisting Divide and Rule

by Steve, August 30th, 2007

The debate we’ve begun having here about Portland Public Schools’ open transfer policy is just the leading edge of the storm. We can expect things to get even more heated as the board belatedly begins discussions about the segregated shambles created by open transfers and Vicki Phillips’ self-contradictory experiments in market-based school reforms. (Somehow, she actually seemed to believe that “School Choice” was a salve for racial segregation; common sense and statistics show us the opposite is true.)

One thing I would like to make crystal clear: I do not blame any family for choosing to transfer out of their neighborhood public school. This is a debate about policy, not individual choices.

The simple fact is that PPS policy encourages transfers, and every transfer encourages more. Many schools in our besieged red-zone neighborhoods have capture rates below 50%. Once the majority of neighborhood students have transfered out, it’s a no-brainer for other families. This is how the PPS open transfer policy feeds into a self-fulfilling cycle of “failing schools”. There is a clear “skimming” effect (documented by the Flynn-Blackmer audit), as middle-class families pull out, leaving poverty-affected students and teachers and administrators struggling to meet draconian goals set by No Child Left Behind.

If the school board actually considers curtailing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers for elementary schools, as I have advocated, they must do this only as part of a larger re-examination of attendance area boundaries and special focus schools.

As we enter this debate city-wide, I urge everybody to treat each other with civility and respect, especially those who have taken advantage of open transfers to flee schools that are suffering from PPS policy. We are all in this together, which is one of the basic tenets of public education. Together, we can make our public schools work better for everybody.

Drop… The… Puck

by Steve, August 29th, 2007

Here’s Thirteen reasons I’m glad hockey season is almost upon us.

1. Winter Hawks owners Jim Goldsmith and Jack Donovan seem to have struck a lease-to-own deal with the city and Paul Allen’s arena management company to install Goldsmith’s replay screens in the Memorial Coliseum.

After a whole lot of bluster on Goldsmith’s blog with the boss (later removed) and with an assist from play-by-play guy Andy Kemper who questioned the “moral compass” of a couple city commisioners, Hawkey Town’s new hero Randy Leonard contacted Goldsmith and worked a deal with the Hawks, Allen’s people and the city, approved today.

2. That means I will eat crow (I said I’d believe there are replay screens when I see them installed) and buy a ticket package this year

3. which means I’m going to be seeing some hockey.

4. Live.

5. Real soon now.

6. (Hopefully they’ve cleaned the stinkin’ beer lines from last season at the old Coliseum.)

7. I love the old Glass Palace.

8. And I love the smell of the ice.

9. School’s back in session next week, so us old farts can reclaim the lunch hour scrimmage at the old rink.

10. Which means I can get my tired old arse back in shape (at least somewhat!).

11. It’s been a really long and interesting off-season for the Winter Hawks, and also for me.

12. But I’m ready to get back into the game.

13. See you at the game!

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.

97217: The Neighborhood That Gives… and Gives… and Gives…

by Steve, August 26th, 2007

Note: this entry is part of a series on school funding inequity in Portland. Here I do further analysis on the data I originally reported in PPS Divestment by Neighborhood, Illustrated.

Anybody who pays attention to Portland Public Schools and doesn’t live in the “green zone” knows intuitively that PPS is a two-tiered, segregated system. But it is shocking and shameful to dig into the numbers and realize the full extent to which district policy robs literally tens of millions of dollars annually from our poorest neighborhoods and lavishes it on the richest, whitest parts of town.

The poor and working class neighborhoods of Portland showed some serious largess last school year, sending $32 million to the finest neighborhoods in town. The biggest single chunk of that came from 97217.

In 2006-07, Portland Public Schools open transfer policy encouraged a net 1,069 students to take $8.2 million out of that neighborhood. It would look far worse, if not for the fact that Beach’s Spanish immersion program put that school in the green column by $1.2 million. Also, the numbers for Ockley Green are a little fishy, showing over $800,000 in the green and a suspiciously low looking attendance area population of 327. (I’m not sure how PPS is figuring that number, since the K-5 attendance area overlaps with Chief Joseph. Perhaps that 327 is just grades 6-8.)

But the anomalies of Beach and Ockley Green can’t stanch the rivers of cash flowing out of Chief Joseph ($770,000), Penninsula ($191,000), or the biggest single contributor to our wealthier neighborhood schools, Jefferson High.

Yes, that’s right folks, the only majority-black high school in Oregon, serving the poorest neighborhoods of Portland, is giving $9 million annually to our whiter, richer neighborhood high schools across town.

How can we live with this? I’ve heard the argument that open transfers were needed to save the district. Maybe they did, but the district that survived is horribly disfigured, and the demographic trends have radically changed in recent years any way. More and more middle class families are moving into the red zone. It’s disgraceful what they will find when their children reach school age.

We need to scrap the open transfer policy now, before our schools are disfigured beyond recognition. We have the infrastructure and demographics in place for a first class, equitable, integrated school system in Portland. The fact that we have a two-tiered, segregated system is a result of policy. That policy must change.

School budget per student enrollment neighborhood PPS population +/-
Beach 5449 475 246 1247821
Chief Joseph 5278 359 505 -770588
Humboldt 6518 240 286 -299828
Jefferson 7614 566 1751 -9022590
Ockley Green 6973 442 327 801895
Peninsula 5320 299 335 -191520
97217 total: -8234810

Source: Portland Public Schools.

Corrected Map and Some More Analysis

by Steve, August 26th, 2007

Thanks to those who pointed out typos in the graphic I posted the other day documenting Portland Public Schools’ diversion of state revenue from poor neighborhoods to rich ones. I have corrected it for proper labeling of 97219 and 97266. I appreciate any other corrections people notice. (I’m a one man, in-my-spare-time operation, working without the benefit of fact checkers and info-graphic artists, so I hope you’ll excuse the sloppiness.)

A reader e-mailed me to ask about 97219, one of the only West-side areas in the red. I’ll admit this surprised me. Here’s the break-down by school:

School budget per student enrollment neighborhood PPS population +/-
Capitol Hill 4217 341 356 -63255
Jackson 4342 688 652 156312
Maplewood 4164 307 342 -145740
Markham 4750 359 496 -650750
Rieke 4537 280 328 -217776
Stephenson 5166 310 265 232470
Wilson 4554 1556 1642 -391644

The entire ZIP is down just $1 million (compare to 97217, down $8.2 million), but still, I didn’t expect to see Wilson high in the red at all, even if t is only by less than half a million.

I’ll highlight other ZIP codes as I have time. In the meanwhile, I encourage you to download and study the spread sheet if you can’t wait.

PPS Divestment by Neighborhood, Illustrated

by Steve, August 24th, 2007

I’ve written before about how Portland Public Schools’ open transfer policy causes segregation and divestment of state tax revenue from poor neighborhoods and funnels it to wealthier neighborhoods. I’ve called for a New Deal for PPS that will and redirect state funding to reinvest in these neighborhoods.

My harping on these points has caused some confusion. After all, doesn’t PPS actually spend more per student in the poorer schools? Yes, of course they do. But the point is that as families take advantage of PPS’s open transfer policy, millions of dollars follow them out of poorer neighborhoods, landing in the wealthier, whiter neighborhoods. Left in their wake are segregated schools with fewer “specials”, electives and extra-curricular activities, and under constant threat of closure, No Child Left Behind sanctions, and “reorganization” (read charter schools, alternative schools, and ill-advised grant-funded experiments).

Below is a map illustrating the reverse-Robin Hood pattern of divestment in Portland’s neighborhoods. Areas of red had a net loss of funding when compared to area PPS student population in 2006-07 (that is, of all PPS students living in the attendance areas of schools in that ZIP code, fewer actually attend schools in that ZIP code). The areas of green had a net gain. The darker the color, the greater the loss or gain. The gray areas were close enough to call “gray” (+/- $200,000 per year); 97204 (in white) has no schools.

(Click map for a larger view.)neighborhooddivestment-thmb.png

The big winner in the PPS funding switcheroo is 97232, largely due to the presence of Benson and da Vinci (which, as special focus schools, do not have attendance areas). This part of Portland gained an additional $8.9 million in state funding last school year.

Other areas of note are 97214, the beneficiary of an extra $3.1 million, 97209 at $2 million, 97202 at $1.6 million, 97212 at $2 million, and 97215 at $1 million.

The losers, as most of us not in the “green zone” are already painfully aware, are stuck footing the bill. North Portland’s 97217 has bled the most, with a loss of $8.2 million last school year. Over in St. Johns, in 97203, they lost $5.7 million. Outer Northeast’s 97213 lost $1.7 million. Out in the nether-reaches of the east-side, 97216 lost $2 million, 97206 lost $2.7 million, and 97220 lost a whopping $4.3 million. There are more.

This is the legacy of Portland Public Schools’ open transfer policy: Segregated schools and divestment from working-class neighborhoods.

It’s time our school leaders acknowledge that this policy is flawed at best. Unfortunately, recent leadership foibles have only exacerbated the problems.

We have a unique opportunity in Portland, with its thriving and integrated urban neighborhoods, to create a truly equitable and integrated system of neighborhood public schools. The first step is to correct this funding imbalance, and guarantee that every neighborhood school offers opportunities on par with every other neighborhood school. Nothing less will do.

Source and methodology notes: All statistics are gathered from Portland Public Schools 2006-2007 Enrollment Profiles. (I have extracted the PPS data to a single spread sheet in order to more easily collate the data.)

School funding loss/gain is computed by subtracting the neighborhood PPS population from the number of students attending the school, then multiplying it by the budget per student at that school. For example, at Ainsworth, there were 509 students, 317 PPS students in the attendance area, and $4334 spent per student. So (509-317)*4334 = $832,128.

Schools like Marshall High, with multiple schools within the school, were calculated as follows. First I computed the total spent in the entire school by multiplying the number of students in each sub-school by that sub-school’s budget per student. Then I calculated a per-student budget for the entire school, and used that number as a multiplier of the difference between the total school population and the attendance area PPS population.

PPS does not publish funding per student for its charter schools, so it is impossible to include them in this study.

Net losses and gains do not add up to zero, because of differences in per-pupil funding by school.

I may have made some mistakes along the way, either in extracting the data, collating them, or in putting them on the map. If you find any errors, I’d appreciate hearing about them!

White Line Fever

by Steve, August 19th, 2007

I grew up road tripping family style. Starting with a coast-to-coast odyssey in a playpen in the back of a VW Microbus, and working my way through car, train, bus, truck and plane trips of all sorts through most of the United States and Mexico and parts of Canada and Europe.

San Rafael Reef, Utah

My traveling days, along with my ability to live out out of a backpack for months at a time, ended when I had two children. Or so it seemed. This summer, with the little ones getting bigger and with the aid of such niceties I never knew — like air conditioning and DVD players — we embarked on our first epic family road trip across the iconic landscapes of the American West. Twenty-six hundred miles of desert, forest, rock, canyon, mountain and gorge.

Shoshone Falls, Idaho

The joy of going overland is that the journey becomes a major part of the trip, rather than an annoyance to put up with on the way somewhere else. I love seeing the landscape change as I go. Read the rest of this entry »

Summer Break (a.k.a. the Off Season)

by Steve, August 12th, 2007

You may have noticed I’ve been slacking about this blogging thing. I’ve been distracted by a nice little thing called “summer”, which is the fairest month in Oregon. I also haven’t been skating at all, which has got me a little grumpy.

I’ve taken a little time away from reading and engaging about Portland Public Schools, and despite the fact that the Winter Hawks have a new coach, I haven’t found the time to read, comment or blog about that, either. I should be back in full force with the blogging and skating soon. Until then, enjoy your summer, and I’ll see you at the rink and the school board meetings soon.


So Long, Scooter!

by Steve, August 2nd, 2007

Dean “Scooter” Vrooman, the “Voice of the Winter Hawks” for 25 years, has tendered his resignation.

So the shake ups continue in Hawkeytown. The coaching change wasn’t a huge surprise, but this one came out of nowhere. Scooter had hinted at the end of last season that his role with the team may be changing, but I don’t think this is what he was talking about.

Scooter is a class act, and says he wasn’t forced out.

Still, you’ve got to wonder what’s going on. Will G.M. and former owner Ken Hodge be next? What about Innes Mackie? (Hodge and Mackie are what remains of the “three amigos” who brought Canadian major junior hockey to the U.S. in 1976. The third, Brian Shaw, died in 1994.)

Junior hockey fans all across western Canada and the U.S. know that Scooter was one of the best in the business. Listening to his game call on the radio was always the next best thing to being there. He was old school — always a bit of a homer — and his passion for the game in general and Hawks in particular was contagious.

There will be no replacement for the Scooter. Sure, they’ll get someone to do the broadcasts. But they’re going to have to retire his blazer and hang it from the rafters a the Memorial Coliseum next to all the championship banners he was a part of.

This is a huge loss to the Portland hockey community.

Burrito Loco #1, RIP

by Steve, August 1st, 2007

It’s a sad, sad day for my neighborhood. The original Burrito Loco has closed. I wonder what will happen to the Cuckoo’s Nest next door….