School Policy: When faced with the Plague, why are you bringing Band-Aids?

Elleanor Chin FacebookTwitter

Below is a letter I wrote to all of members the School Board for Portland Public Schools, with a copy to Superintendent Smith. The specific focus of the letter is one part of the proposal for changing the PPS lottery system, but the underlying issue applies to other communities throughout the state and the country. The problem is that public schools are so poorly supported and funded that there is wide local variation based largely on the ability of individual schools' parent populations to subsidize their operations and backstop the staff.

December 16, 2014

Dear School Board Members-

I am a North Portland resident. My husband and I have a daughter in 3rd grade and a son in 1st grade at Buckman Arts Focus Elementary. We also have a daughter who is scheduled to start kindergarten in Fall 2016. I write to urge you to retain sibling preferences in the lottery for intra-district transfers. The proposed policy as revised is still somewhat ambiguous on this point, although it is an improvement on the prior version (I have reviewed the proposed changes).

Requiring families to take their children to two separate elementary schools makes no logistical sense. It will create unnecessary burdens for families, disrupt the formation of supportive family and parent communities in schools and alienate people who would otherwise be supporters of the Portland Public schools. Moreover, it’s implausible that tinkering with the lottery system in this fashion will solve the actual problems that are creating inequity in the school district. The fact that the Superintendent and the Board have approached the problem with this as part of the solution makes me question both your near-term priorities and overall stance on inequities in the school system.

I am well aware the public schools in Oregon have struggled with funding for at least fifteen years and this is a reflection of state and federal legislative challenges. It is not this Superintendent or School Board’s sole responsibility to fix a system that has failed to prioritize public school education, making Oregon’s education system weak even in a country that largely fails to recognize the needs of working families, racial and ethnic minorities and people living in poverty when it comes to schooling. We all live with a tax scheme and other incentives skewed towards corporations and a few wealthy individuals. We are truly in a system where the 1% have taken 99 of 100 available cookies and are looking at the rest of us: public schools, health care, the environment, anti-poverty programs and saying “watch out, she’s going to get your cookie!” But given all that, why would you undertake a narrow remedial measure whose only measurable effect, relative to the scope of the problem, is to tick off people who are doing their best to support the public schools?

Allow me to explain why my children are in the lottery and a little bit of our experience as a PPS family.

Our neighborhood K-5 is Sitton, although we are actually closer to James John. When we went to the kindergarten round-up at Sitton they said they had no aftercare program on site. My husband and I both worked full time in or near downtown Portland. The parent representative told us that they were trying to fundraise to get approximately $5000 for a better sign out in front of the school. At James John they had no aftercare and the kindergarten teacher was rude and dismissive about my concern that my kindergartener would be released at 2:30 and I had a full time job. Individual schools and teachers cannot fix the overall failure of this country to recognize that children in school have parents who work, but it would better to treat parents as allies instead of inconveniences.

We literally and figuratively won the lottery by getting our eldest child into Buckman. We had a school with not just a robust arts program, but reliable, quality aftercare, reasonable proximity to my workplace and my husband’s and an involved parent community. What our school doesn’t have is enough of the most basic school supplies, low student teacher ratios, a PE teacher or enough money to actually sustain the program they have without raising $100,000 of money from parents every year. The fact that all parents have to show up on the first day of school (not just at Buckman, but most places) with two reams of photocopy paper that goes straight to the office tells me pretty much what I need to know about school funding. I am fortunate that I can afford #2 pencils, sanitizing wipes and crayons. Not all the parents in Buckman (or Sitton, or James John) can. But it’s money that I can’t then give to the Foundation and the PTA. Compared to raising $5000 for a sign (which PPS apparently can’t provide), the Buckman community is fortunate enough to raise money to support the staff. But every year is a constant fire drill with an exhausting round of fundraising events and the Foundation pleading for money at every assembly.

In the time that my family has been at Buckman, parents from lottery families have served as PTA officers, Foundation officers and room parents as well as basic classroom volunteers. Incidentally, basic classroom volunteer duties may include supervising “run-walk,” which is part of children’s required PE. Because there is no PE teacher, the classroom teachers take the kids outside to run laps around the school. If there aren’t enough adults between teachers, aides (a rare luxury) and parents, there’s no run-walk.

None of the above even touches on the academic quality of a PPS education. My understanding is that Sitton, James John, George Middle School and Roosevelt High School all have sundry challenges, reflected in their scores. The academic experience is a complex topic in itself and I’m aware that ratings fluctuate and don’t always reflect the learning experience of any given student. But it’s clear that the educational quality varies widely within the district, depending in part on which schools a child attends. And I even recognize that it’s not an easy solution to say “Well, if you don’t want parents fleeing any particular neighborhood school, maybe make sure the neighborhood school doesn’t make people want to flee!”

What Part of the Problem is Your "Solution" Fixing?

But I ask you to consider: what problem are you fixing by even suggesting that I should take a kindergartener to Sitton in far North Portland while simultaneously getting a 5th and 3rd grader to Buckman in near Southeast in Fall 2016? My children are fortunate to live with two parents who have reliable cars and flexible work schedules. Not every child does. Any parent in that situation who couldn’t be in two places at once would have some very tough decisions to make. Dividing families’ attention and resources between two Foundations, two PTAs, two principals and two school cultures would serve no good purpose either.

Assuming my family could manage all that, how soon would it be before the Sitton parent community would be raising more than $5000 to fill whatever enormous gaps there are from the General Fund? There’s not much relationship between moving my family and half a dozen other neighborhood families around and filling the actual needs of neighborhood schools. (Other families who are not attending Sitton or James John are sending their kids to MLC, Emerson, Chapman, The Village School, private school or Skyline, meaning some would be affected by your “fix” and some would not). There’s almost certainly no relationship between eliminating a sibling preference and the ability of the public schools to provide copy paper much less a PE teacher and a teacher student ratio of less than 28:1. There is definitely no relationship between where I send one out of three of my children and where low income families in the District can afford to live.

Intradistrict income and racial diversity problems in PPS are significant. Buckman may be atypical, but it has many families who speak English as a second language as well families who qualify for free or reduced lunch, as well as families who make generous donations to the Foundation. The Board and the Superintendent have an incredibly difficult, even insurmountable task in trying to offer all students a quality education and I thank you for your work. I realize the sibling preference isn’t the only issue before the Board, but that you could even start down this road with all the other problems facing PPS raises some serious credibility questions. When faced with the Plague, why are you buying Band-Aids?

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