Working at Cross Purposes

by Steve, January 16th, 2008

Here are my prepared remarks delivered to the Portland City Council Wednesday at Jefferson High School.

Good morning, and welcome to my neighborhood high school. I am truly honored to be here among some of Portland’s best and brightest young adults.

I appreciate the symbolism of City Hall coming to Jefferson High, and I would like to take the opportunity to focus your attention on a serious issue facing our schools and our city.

Eighteen months ago, auditors from the county and city issued a report on the Portland Public Schools student transfer policy. Their audit found the policy not only failed to mitigate ethnic and socio-economic segregation in the district, it actually made the problem worse. To date, the school board has not fully responded to this audit, which was a condition of the Multnomah County I-Tax.

As a parent of two young children in the district, I found this audit somewhat startling, and began to do my own investigation last summer. Using the district’s enrollment and transfer data, I found that segregation is just the tip of the iceberg.

It turns out that this transfer policy, which allows students to freely transfer between neighborhood schools, taking their funding with them, is responsible for a massive shift of public investment away from our neediest neighborhoods and into wealthier parts of town. In the 2006-07 school year, this amounted to a $43 million divestment from the parts of town that most need investment.

This is made worse by the fact that the district follows it with school closures and draconian program cuts, leaving us with a two-tiered system of public education. This inequity has reached a level that cannot be tolerated by a city that prides itself on equal opportunity and diversity.

I put together a report to the school board in September, and I’ve brought the final draft to share with you today. This report shows this pattern graphically, and recommends an equitable solution.

The reason I’m talking to you about this is that we have two governmental bodies with overlapping jurisdictions, whose policies are effectively working against one another. On the one hand, we have PPS policy that is divesting from our neediest neighborhoods and fragmenting communities by undermining neighborhood schools. On the other hand, we have valuable work being done by Commissioner Sten and the Bureau of Housing and Community Development, to try to reverse some of these effects.

We are clearly working at cross purposes.

So I’m asking you, as policy-making professionals, to exert influence on your partners at Portland Public Schools. They are unpaid volunteers, and they don’t necessarily have the policy expertise that you have. They need help and guidance to correct a policy that continues to divest from the neighborhoods we should be investing in.

The report I’ve given you and the school board outlines a sensible, phased plan to return balance to the school district’s public investment policy and bring it in line with city policy goals. I urge you to take the time to read it, and lobby the school board to do the right thing. Let’s end a system that punishes children based on the color of their skin and the neighborhoods they live in.

9 Responses to “Working at Cross Purposes”

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Steve, you are on a hot streak! This is a terrific speech also. The idea they are working at cross purposes seems so true until you factor in the idea that the city council has the same political persuasion and political pressure as the school board. Doesn’t seem to me that the poorer parts of Portland are treated much differently by the city council than by the school board. So I am not holding my breath for the city council to pressure or even influence the school board to begin to take seriously their obligation to ALL the children of Portland, instead of only the children of their well-to-do friends.

    But, the only way to try to get some justice here is to keep fighting like you have — nice going!

  2. Comment from Ben:


    Thank you for your continued efforts.


  3. Comment from McAngryPants:

    Thank you!!

  4. Comment from Rubycakes:

    Does anyone remember a time that the City Council had in influence, or commented on School Board issues?

    I’m wondering if the City Council can affect change with the school board or whether there is a “professional courtesy” thing going on here.

  5. Comment from Steve:

    There’s definitely a lot of “professional courtesy” going on (even though technically only one of the two bodies is “professional.”)

    I don’t necessarily expect somebody like Erik Sten to publicly criticize PPS policy, but he could certainly make some phone calls and lobby behind the scenes.

  6. Comment from Ben:

    Regarding Rubycakes response, when Rose City Park was being closed last year, I emailed the City Council and Mayor (plus Senators and Congressman). The ones who responded, deflected any interest or responsibility in getting involved in PPS.

  7. Comment from Zarwen:

    Our friends at the O have provided us with a terrific example of what Steve is talking about. They had not just one, but TWO articles about what an up-and-coming neighborhood Kenton is. (By some strange coincidence, it is also the home of mayoral candidate Sam Adams. Isn’t it amazing how those things work sometimes?) What was never mentioned even ONCE in either article is the fact that Kenton School closed two years ago! Where are these new young families supposed to send their children to school???

  8. Comment from NicoleLeggett:

    Hello from Peninsula School! Research mamma here. Could you post a link for your final draft of Charting Open Transfer Enrollment and Neighborhood Funding Inequities? Thank you, Nicole Leggett

  9. Comment from Steve:

    I’m trying to get around to it… I have the document in MS Word, and I need to generate the PDF.

    The only difference was the methodology in determining the +/- dollar amounts. In the draft, I used actual budget per student at each school, which some people felt was unfair. So for the final, I used a figure of $6,800 per student, district-wide. The pattern is exactly the same (except Roosevelt and Madison changed positions on the red zone list), and there is no change to the narrative and recommendation.