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.

12 Responses to “PPS’s Middle Class Escape Clause”

  1. Comment from J.S.:

    Thank you for speaking the truth.

  2. Comment from howard:

    That is “Entitlement Socialism” as coined by Author and Commentator Tony Brown. Universal entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Public K-12 will only be supported by the affluent if the affluent can derive the fullest benefit from those entitlements. Example: Means tested entitlements such as Head Start are not funded to a level that serves all comers.

  3. Comment from Terry:

    Just posted a comment on Amanda’s blog –defending your insistence on speaking out on schools and district policy. I don’t think she quite gets it. If schools aren’t important to the city, what is?

    Regarding “white flight”, that’s a term I’ve used frequently to characterize the wholesale abandonment of lower class schools by Portland’s white (and sometimes black) middle class. It’s a metaphor, of course. Few white families actually flee the city, but many flee the neighborhoods in which they live when it come to “choosing” a school.

    Another great post, Steve. You’re on quite a roll.

  4. Comment from Steve:

    Thanks Terry.

    In Amanda’s defense, if she didn’t see the value of schools to the future of Portland, she wouldn’t be bringing this stuff up. I appreciate the work she’s doing to get a better statement on education into visionPDX.

    My point is that while she cares at a high level, she isn’t attentive enough to how the policy she meekly defends is screwing over our red-zone neighborhoods.

    I think she’ll “get it” in time. She’s a reasonable person. I imagine she doesn’t want to get too far out ahead of the issue, lest it become a liability in her potential city council race.

  5. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Steve, bingo!! An escape clause for people who pay attention to their kids education and also have enough resources to adjust somewhat to a school in a different part of town and also understand the system, i.e. people who are fairly generally middle class or above or have middle class educational roots.

    Private schools play a similar role and now charter schools are beginning to also. I imagine the attraction is you feel you have some degree of control in a charter school about how it is run etc.

    So I believe we are left with only two options, dump the transfer system and shut down the escape clause (this would mean focus options and charters) or fix the poorer schools. I think most people who are involved in the school district politics would choose the later. That is why I have always supported it as the main approach.

    That said, they aren’t about to do either. And I know someone is thinking — oh, yeah, Beaverton. They do it.

    But Portland is totally different than Beaverton, the difference in who attends a school in outer SE is incredibly different than who attends a school in the NW. I am not joking when I refer to kids whose mom’s are in jail and whose dads are on drugs and contrast them to kids whose moms are doctors and dads are lawyers. In Beaverton there is much less difference.

    So fix the schools which aren’t working, particularly at the middle grades, and get the resources to those children who deperately need them.

    I am sure if we just sat down with SFC and PSF and explained it to them they would be more than happy to transfer a lot of the district resources away from their schools into the lower economic areas.

  6. Comment from marcia:

    I don’t think it is white flight, as much as it is CLASS FLIGHT……fleeing from the lower class…no matter what the color.

  7. Comment from Terry:

    Does anyone truly believe that VisionPDX will actually mean anything in a few years time? I mean it’s not policy and it doesn’t bind future city commissioners to any particular course of action. If it does, then I’m missing something.

    All people are reasonable up to a point, Steve, but some people are just plain wrong on some issues. School choice is one of those issues, and Amanda Fritz is just plain wrong in her support of it.

    And Marcia, as I said, “white flight” is a metaphor. It has elements of both classism and racism in it. However you want to define it, it’s alive and well in Portland.

  8. Comment from Steve:

    I have my doubts about the importance of visionPDX, too, Terry, but if we’re going to spend the time and money on what is basically a position paper, we should get it right. Amanda’s been burning the midnight oil on it, which I appreciate (even if I don’t prioritize it myself). Both she and Ruth Adkins testified last night.

    Amanda’s position on open transfers has never been clearly defined (she’s never defended neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers outright, for example), and I think she’s coming around to a position on funding equity that we can all agree with. I’m willing to give her more time to get it right once she gives it more thought. If not, well, at least she’s thought about it more than anybody currently on the city council.

  9. Comment from Heather:

    Don’t know if you looked at my myspace again. I was trying not to post on your blog, but here are some further comments I brought over, there’s a couple other comments on my myspace. I think Laurali makes some very valuable points as well. I’m not saying I don’t agree with the concept of staying with the neighborhood schools. Not everything that we do in life can be in perfect alignment with what we believe, however– I just find it hard to not support in something both of our families have done and openly acknowledging that.

    Steve, thanks for responding. I didn’t see in the link for the posting you provided where you mention that your own family takes advantage of this policy. Yes, let’s do keep civility towards families that have taken advantage of this policy. I agree that for the system as a whole, neighborhood schools should be supported and the policy should be slowly disabled. However, I have taken advantage of the school transfer policy, and most likely will do so again (if the option is still available) when we have to reapply to stay in the same cluster at the middle school age (which is not Jefferson, no).

  10. Comment from Steve:

    Heather, I don’t get to MySpace very often.

    I know Wacky Mommy posted it in a comment, and I think I did too. They’re in the archives somewhere. We haven’t tried to hide the fact that we’ve used the transfer policy.

    The point is, once again, that this is not about “personal choice”. This is about district policy. The district has set up a self-reinforcing cycle that makes transfers the obvious choice for many families. I don’t blame anybody for doing what they think is best for their children.

    But I advocate ending that policy, and making things better for everyone, even if it curtails my own personal choice.

    First remove any legitimate reason for transfer from one neighborhood school to another (lack of programs, class size, etc.), then remove the ability to transfer.

    I don’t want to get into who’s got kids at what school or why. That’s too distracting from the policy issue at hand, and it lets the school board off the hook for their policy that bleeds our poorest neighborhoods of nearly $40 million a year.

  11. Comment from Heather:

    That order of events sounds good to me. I’m all for that. Until your first outlined step is accomplished however, I would have to say I am extremely happy with the school I have transferred my children to and I intend to keep them in that cluster using the transfer option open to me if I can. I didn’t think you made it to myspace much that’s why I “sounded off” on my own little myspace blog. I wholeheartedly understand that the policy is faulty at the core for a myriad of reasons which you have researched and supported in depth. Thank you.

  12. Comment from Wacky Mommy:

    Hi, all — here is the old comment I posted. We’ve always been upfront about our kids transferring.

    “I think everyone knows that Himself and I transferred our kids to the next neighborhood school over from us — we cross one busy street instead of two this way, and it’s equal distance from our assigned school.

    (If we lived one block north we’d be assigned to the school we’re now attending.)

    Our neighborhood school is a special-focus, with a school-within-a-school. But if you’re not interested in the special focus (we weren’t. It wasn’t a good fit for our daughter. It was a frickin’ disaster, to be honest) the neighborhood school gets starved out by the “special” school and chaos and resentment reign.

    I’m with Nicole — the boundaries need to be redrawn.”

    It was from this post.