PPS’s Middle Class Escape Clause

by Steve, September 19th, 2007

In thinking more about the open transfer policy at Portland Public Schools, I feel like I’m starting to understand the mindset that has kept it safely in place, despite the lack of any legitimate policy rationale.

I felt a little icky after my exchange with Amanda Fritz on her blog yesterday. Partly because I think I upset her, which is never my intent, but mostly because she represents a common middle class liberal attitude about open transfers. She’s seen the numbers and maps; she knows that open transfers cost our poorest neighborhoods nearly $40 million a year in lost public investment. But evidently that’s worth it to her.

“PPS’s transfer policy has likely kept many wealthier families in Portland’s public schools, rather than going to private schools,” she wrote yesterday.

That’s the old saw that folks trot out every time this issue comes up. The fallacies here are many. The threat of white flight is extremely overblown, and nobody ever produces statistics to back the claim. Even if it were true, how much should our poorest neighborhoods pay to keep them from fleeing? Is $40 million a year enough? Or should we be paying more? This no way to run a school district. You can’t justify such a radical upward redistribution of wealth by saying it’s “likely” that it’s helped in some way.

She’s voiced this attitude a couple of times, and refuses to take even a moderate stand like the Flynn-Blackmer audit (230KB PDF) took: “the transfer policy competes with other Board policies such as strong neighborhood schools and investing in poor performing schools.”

I think what we’re really looking at here is that open transfers are an escape clause for the middle class. They’re the ones who use the policy, and they’re the ones who run the board. They’ll never say it in polite company, but it is implicit that this policy lets them have their kids go to school with kids “like them”, even if they can’t afford a house in the “better” parts of town. They’re just as happy to not talk about this in a broader policy context, because their arguments in favor of it simply don’t hold water, especially in light of its cost to our poorest neighbors. Which explains why the conversation keeps getting pushed back by the board. We’re just not willing, in our polite white society, to discuss the twin elephants in the room: race and class.

Now, I don’t mean to pick on Amanda Fritz. I like her as a public figure (though I’ve never met her, and, as she pointed out, “evidently you don’t know me very well”).

I voted for her when she ran for city council as a pioneer of public election funding in Portland. I’d like to endorse her if she runs again, but that is contingent on her taking a stand, even a moderate stand, on this radical PPS public investment policy that has a huge impact on the future of Portland and is absolutely the business of the city council and those seeking a seat there.