School Choice vs. Neighborhood Shools

by Steve, September 13th, 2007

Former PPS school board member Steve Buel notes in comments on this blog that all school board members elected in the last two elections promised to “strengthen neighborhood schools”. Indeed, “preserving strong neighborhood schools” is not just a campaign pledge of board members, but a stated policy of Portland Public Schools. Buel asks the critical question: “How are they doing?”

The answer: Not very well, Steve.

The trouble is, this policy is consistently and thoroughly undermined by another policy of PPS, “School Choice” (note the capitalization). Open transfers, allowing students to transfer from any school to any school (space allowing) drain tens of millions of dollars out of our poorest neighborhoods each year. This is not only devastating to the learning environment, it also has a profound impact on property values.

Over a year ago, the Flynn-Blackmer audit (230KB PDF) pointed out (in no uncertain terms) that the transfer policy is at odds with strengthening neighborhood schools and decreasing racial isolation. It has significantly set back both of those district policies. In light of this conflict, Flynn and Blackmer “urge[d] the Board to clarify the purpose of the school choice system.”

The board has pushed this back repeatedly, and now, over a year since the audit was released, they have scheduled their first discussion of the issue for this October.

I too am dying to know “the purpose of the school choice system.” I’ve repeatedly heard it justified as a way to keep middle class families in Portland, but recent demographic changes put the lie to that rationale. So, school board members, what is the purpose of our radical open transfer policy?

I’m working hard to get the school board to consider this not only from the educational perspective, but also as a matter of public investment policy. The PPS board controls an annual budget of nearly half a billion dollars. Can a city with progressive bona fides like Portland tolerate the kind of leadership that that divests nearly $40 million a year from its poorest neighborhoods?

A significant subtext to the story is that the current board seems unwilling to listen to past board members like Buel or Sue Hagmeier, or take cues from the Beaverton school district, which has managed its budget in a notably more equitable manner. There they are, sole experts in the field, inventing this great new thing called the wheel.

This funding inequity story has already been picked up by reporters Beth Slovic at Willamette Week and Jennifer Anderson at the Portland Tribune. Oregonian education reporter Betsy Hammond is late to the party, but hopefully will pick up the story soon.