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Portland Schools Need Radical Change, Not Just a New Superintendent

Portland school superintendent Carole Smith abruptly resigned in July, after nine years on the job. She was originally planning to retire next June, but the release of an independent investigation into the district’s inept handling of contaminated drinking water caused her to speed up her departure.

The school board immediately announced a national search for a successor, and the rest of the story is predictable. After months of searching, finalists will be scrutinized in a detailed public vetting, and someone will be signed to an expensive contract. The new leader will enjoy a short honeymoon and then gradually sink into the bureaucratic quagmire of school politics.

Amidst never-ending arguments about school transfers, graduation rates, and a myriad of other issues, buyer’s remorse will set in. Eventually the superintendent will resign and the process will begin anew.

This is the way we’ve been doing things for decades, usually with disappointing results. We could take a different path. But first we have to admit that if system results are disappointing, we need to change the system, not the people.

Large urban school districts are inherently dysfunctional. Teaching is a distributed service; the learning takes place student by student, classroom by classroom. When measured in terms of students, teachers, money, and facilities, there are millions of moving parts. The notion that a single bureaucrat in the central office can design the optimal system to satisfy all customers is a fantasy.

The system itself needs radical change, and the single most important reform Portland could pursue would be to redesign how the money flows.

Right now, tax dollars go to the district, regardless of results. Students are assigned to schools like factory widgets and few families have other options. The suppliers of service have all the leverage, while consumers have almost none.

A better option would be for the district to seek legislative approval of Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs). The ESA concept is simple: Parents who are dissatisfied with the government school assigned to them can opt to have most or all of the per-student money that would have gone to that school for their children deposited instead in personal accounts managed by the state treasurer. The funds in each account become property of the family and may be used for a variety of educational services, including private education, home schools, online learning, and tutoring.

Ideally, any money left over at the end of a school year would remain in the account, available for future use. This would encourage wise stewardship of those funds. If the account still had money at the time the student graduated from high school, it could be used for college tuition or technical training.

Distributing school funding through consumers rather than providers would instantly change the balance of power. High-cost union contracts would have to change. Parents would need to be satisfied. And market discipline would replace ineffective top-down management.

Most parents would probably not use ESAs. It’s likely they are satisfied with their neighborhood school and wouldn’t want the hassle of shopping around. But the mere fact that they could use an ESA would create incentives for teachers and administrators to behave differently. When suppliers of a service know that 100 percent of their customers have the means to shop elsewhere, they focus on satisfying those customers.

Carole Smith was neither the worst nor the best Portland school superintendent in recent memory; she was just part of the conveyor belt of socialism that defines generic government education. Stopping the conveyor belt would be a good first step toward liberating students and improving educational achievement in Portland.


This article originally appeared in the July 2016 edition of the newsletter, Oregon Transformation: Ideas for Growth and Change.

Portland Schools Schedule Book-Burning Party

The Portland Public School board recently voted to prohibit textbooks or classroom materials questioning the mainstream thinking about climate change.

The decision has sparked an outpouring of commentary, with many writers supportive of the School Board.

However, the wording of the Board resolution should greatly concern parents of Portland public school students. Resolution No. 5272 is two pages long, but the most chilling part is the final sentence:

“[Portland Public Schools] will abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”

The primary purpose of education is to teach students how to be critical thinkers. Now that the School Board has declared that expressions of doubt about complex scientific topics will be banned, what is the point of going to school?

Regardless of the subject we should encourage students to be skeptical. The more questioning, the better. They will be poorly prepared for adult living if they spend their childhood years being spoon-fed in schools where skepticism is prohibited.

Public education already faces a growing challenge from private schools, online learning, and home-based education. If Resolution 5272 is upheld, Portland Public Schools will give parents one more reason to leave.

Portland Public Schools’ New Ombudsman Should Be Independent

By Joel Grey

In response to parent complaints, Portland Public Schools will create a new ombudsman position. An ombudsman is a person within an organization who provides accountability and investigates complaints.

It’s a good thing for public schools to have an ombudsman. An ombudsman is dedicated to listening to parents’ concerns and preventing abuses within the system. Accountability is important because people will often get away with whatever they are able to, and an ombudsman makes it harder to escape independent oversight.

The problem here is that the school district has placed the ombudsman within the public relations department, reporting directly to chief of community involvement and public affairs, rather than to the superintendent. The job of public relations isn’t to investigate and stop abuses within the system; it’s to improve the public’s view of the schools. Placing an ombudsman in a PR department makes it appear to parents that the position is just for show.

An ombudsman should be as independent as possible and report to the highest level of an organization―in this case, directly to the superintendent. This is what Newark Public Schools does, and it is a common practice. Without independence, the ombudsman may appear to parents to be simply a tool to placate their criticisms without effecting real reform.

Joel Grey is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

Too Little of a Good Thing

By William Newell

The recent Portland School Board decision to expand enrollment at Benson Polytechnic High School exemplifies an odd mindset within the public education system. The board’s decision allows Benson to increase its enrollment from 821 to 850 students, due to public outcry over the limit. Benson was designed to handle 2,000 students, yet the school educates fewer than half that number because of district policy.

When businesses provide customers with quality products and services, they attract even more customers. Expansion is a sign of success, and businesses profit from it. Sadly, the same can’t be said of public education. When a public school succeeds, its enrollment gets capped. Its success is considered a drain on other schools: If a school is in high demand, students will flock there and neglect their “neighborhood” schools. Yet, this is the very point of having a market. Poorly performing businesses fail and successful ones rise, but everyone benefits from success.

When schools fail to meet students’ needs, students should be able to attend schools that do. This is why the Benson situation is absurd. The school board shouldn’t limit quality public education. When Portland parents want more seats in schools like Benson, the board should find ways to give them more of the educational programs and opportunities that they demand―either by expanding that school or creating more such schools in the district.

William Newell is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a graduate of Willamette University.

Portland’s Proposed “Arts Education Tax”― Why Creativity and Government Subsidies Are Fundamentally at Odds

By Shane Young

The “Arts Education and Access Income Tax” proposed by Portland Mayor Sam Adams aims to hire more elementary school art teachers and fund local arts organizations by implementing a $35-per-year income tax (maximum) on all residents 18 years old and older who live above the poverty line. The City of Portland is promoting the levy, expected to raise $12 million annually, on the grounds that art education in public schools is vulnerable to budget cuts relative to schools’ other academic priorities.

Numerous criticisms of the tax measure have been raised, including the likelihood that the tax as constructed would be unconstitutional under Oregon law. It also can be noted that it is not the proper function of city government to levy this kind of tax, since the Portland School Board has primary jurisdiction over funding public education in Portland and has its own tax base. Even the editorial board of The Oregonian opposed the ballot measure on the grounds that art education, while valuable, doesn’t merit a dedicated tax. According to the board, Portlanders have “plenty of opportunities and incentives to support” the arts and art education, including a state income tax credit.

The proposed tax measure can and should be opposed on any or all of these grounds, but there is another reason why levying a tax to benefit art fails on principle. Portlanders should recognize what makes art so important to begin with and why government involvement and taxpayer subsidies are at odds with its purpose.

Art allows us to develop and foster creativity. It allows us to take chances and risks. It allows us to make sure that the diverse realm of ideas remains constantly expanding. Because of these benefits that art gives us, Portland should be cautious about putting creativity and diversity, the heart and soul of art, into jeopardy through dedicated, taxpayer funding of government-selected arts institutions.

Unlike the sciences, music, painting, sculpting, photography, poetry, and the many other constantly growing categories of art, have no black-and-white criteria with which to determine their success. In fact, many times art is admired, and established into history, because of its willingness to stray from the standard. It is this very deviation from the norm that allows creativity and diversity, the things art should be praised for in the first place, to flourish.

By allowing the city to take over more responsibility for the artistic growth of children, and to fund organizations solely of its choosing, taxpayers give city bureaucrats complete control over defining what exactly “art” is―and, furthermore, what “good” art is―for the purposes of public funding. Taxes thus will go to promoting one art form over another―and one standard of “good” art over another.

This isn’t to say that artistic development and success do not require discipline and some kind of formal guidance in an art class―it almost always does. Yet, because of the diverse nature of art, and the wide range of criteria used to judge its quality, this discipline and guidance must happen at a much more specialized and intimate level than what the city can or should provide. Therefore, if people are not satisfied with the art education available in Portland’s public schools, they should take The Oregonian’s advice and support the arts on an individual level.

Instead of increasing dedicated spending on the arts through taxation for the benefit of public schools and selected nonprofits, Portlanders should supplement the current art activities in schools, as they choose, with a willingness to allow and encourage children to individually explore the arts for themselves. Financially contributing directly to the areas in which children are interested, rather than simply allowing the city to mass-regulate artistic creativity and diversity, honors and respects the nature of creative expression. This November, Portlanders should allow future generations to answer the age-old question of “What is art?” for themselves, rather than hand city government more taxpayer money to answer it for them.

Shane Young is a research associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He is a student at Whitman College.

Thousands of Oregon Kids Waiting – Literally – for Education Package

This week, legislators and lobbyists are working frantically behind the scenes on an education package that could help transform educational opportunities for students across Oregon. The package features reforms that will shape the state’s oversight of education as well as parents’ ability to choose a public school based on a school’s merits rather than its address.

One of the bills at the center of the tension, HB 3645, would allow Oregon’s public colleges to sponsor a charter school. Oregon’s charter schools are public schools that are operated by non-profit organizations. These schools do not charge tuition, cannot be religiously based, and cannot discriminate against students for their background, academic aptitude, or any other reason. Currently, only school districts or the State Board of Education may sponsor charter schools. This bill would allow charter applicants to ask Oregon’s public colleges to sponsor charters. Many states, including New York, Michigan, and Minnesota already have similar laws.

I discovered the urgent need for such a reform last year when I set out to learn how many of Oregon’s children were on waiting lists to get into a public charter school. Out of Oregon’s 108 charter schools, 92 schools finally responded. More than 4,700 kids were on waiting lists for a charter school last summer. Fewer than 20,000 kids (less than 3%) currently attend charter schools, but clearly far more would, if given the opportunity. In fact, a 2008 poll showed that 24% of Oregon parents would choose a charter school if they could.

Parents want options for their kids beyond the local district school. But why haven’t charter schools expanded enough to meet the demand? District politics frequently make it nearly impossible for even excellent applicants to get permission to start or expand a charter school.

Portland Public Schools’ (PPS) history with charter schools is telling. The application process is lengthy and expensive, taking 12 – 18 months and costing thousands of dollars since applicants typically hire experts to help. They not only must submit a detailed operating budget and curriculum, but they must pay to send out surveys and conduct focus groups to determine student demand. The PPS application itself is 50 pages long, and complete applications are hundreds of pages long. The hurdles continue through the process and the record reflects that clearly. PPS only approved three out of 17 charter applications (18 percent) between 2004 and fall of 2010.

Are such sky-high hurdles altruistic attempts to protect students from bad charter schools? Theories about the cause or justification of such district suspicion abound, but ultimately school boards are driven by local politics. Political incentives involve a number of competing interests, many of them selfish and in opposition to students’ interests.

Such competing incentives are sometimes apparent in the denials themselves, which often claim that charter schools will have an “adverse impact” on regular district schools by drawing too many students (and accompanying funding) from regular district schools. These claims neglect the reality that charter schools get about 55 cents for every dollar that a regular public school spends per student, and when a student transfers to a charter school, regular district schools no longer bear the cost of educating that child, allowing more money to be spent per student who remains in district-run schools.

HB 3645 will help charter schools steer past some of the political obstacles and to be judged more on their merits. But first, the bill must endure the political game at the state level. The Oregon Education Association (OEA), a union, has stated that it opposes allowing public colleges to sponsor charter schools because, “[a]t a time that we are closing neighborhood schools it doesn’t make sense to promote the growth of charter schools.”

Likewise, the OEA opposes HB 3681, which would essentially carry charter schools’ open-enrollment policy over to regular public schools, increasing kids’ educational options. It also opposes HB 2301, which would loosen enrollment restrictions that currently restrict many families from being able to choose a virtual charter school.

The OEA apparently believes that regular district schools are entitled to local student enrollment. The OEA fears that giving parents a choice would create financial instability for schools that might lose too many kids to transfers. But if parents are leaving a particular school in droves, doesn’t that suggest that something is wrong with that school? And if something is wrong, why should parents be forced to send their children there? Opponents of school choice argue that those children who are left behind in bad schools would suffer most. Yet, evidence across the nation suggests that these kids, too, benefit as schools are forced to improve their performance to retain students and accompanying funds.

This is not a battle between private education and public education. All of these educational options are public schools! School choice – empowering parents to choose a school that is the right fit for their kids – is making a significant difference for thousands of Oregon families already. Many more could benefit, finding the schools that work best for them, with bills like HB 3645, 3681, and 2301.

Stand for Children, Governor John Kitzhaber (a Democrat), and many House Republicans have fought the OEA and popular myths to support this education package. As Oregon’s voters and legislators consider these school choice bills, they should consider the thousands of Oregon families who are waiting for a better educational opportunity for their kids.

Why This Mom Is Speaking out Against the PPS $548 Million Bond Measure

We’ve heard the Portland Public School District propaganda machine and the bureaucratic sound bytes about how the so-called school modernization bond will begin the important process of updating Portland schools, bring jobs to the community, increase student achievement, attract young families to the District, and on and on….

But what we don’t hear is a logical, compassionate response to the fact that this bond will tax people out of their homes. I’ve raised this issue many times and given the District plenty of opportunity to respond, but all I get is…crickets….

Could it be because they don’t want to recognize the striking disconnect between their establishment and the financial realities of most in their community?

I’ll let you decide the answer to that, but one thing is clear: It’s time they heard the voice of the taxpayers footing this bill.

I have received criticism from Portland bureaucrats that I couldn’t possibly understand what this means for the school district since, after all, I live in Wilsonville, I have a construction bond in my district, and our schools are being taken care of.

Here’s my response: It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how a monumental tax increase will affect a community, especially in a recession. And, I don’t have to live in the District in order to pick up the phone, listen to heart-wrenching stories from folks on fixed incomes or barely scraping by, understand that this bond measure will put them on the streets, and become enraged at the audacity of the Portland Public School district for putting a “utopian” measure on the ballot with no regard for our economic condition.

I am an advocate for taxpayers statewide, and I will continue to speak out as long as the District remains deaf to the financial reality of its residents.

Since PPS likes to point out that I enjoy a school construction bond already in my district, I’d like to point out the consequences of that. Wilsonville is one of the highest property-taxed areas in Oregon, and when I receive my tax bill every year, it’s like swallowing a jagged horse pill. In fact, my mortgage payment was increased by $300/month at the start of this year to cover my bloated property taxes, which was devastating to my household budget.

Sound like something Portlanders want to take on? I think not.

Not when Portland is still suffering from the grips of economic recession, not when unemployment remains above 10 percent, not when homeowners are barely able to cover basic expenses, not when renters are in no position to deal with rent increases, not when foreclosures are still on the rise and this bond may add 1,000 homes to that list, not when this bond will cost the community 5,000 jobs due to the drastic decrease in disposable income, not when bricks and mortar will do absolutely nothing to increase the atrocious graduation rates within the district (average 53%), and not when the major supporters of the bond measure are the ones who stand to have their pockets lined at our expense.

This is a teachable moment for taxpayers. A time to push back against excess and to demand a more reasonable, financially viable option. The District needs to go back to the drawing board and come up with a proposal that only focuses on the basic, critical structural needs of our schools.

PPS needs to heed the warning that this is no time for “wish list items.” Save those for after the economic recovery.


Lindsay Berschauer is a former Washington state construction company owner. Now an Oregon resident, she is speaking out against the School Modernization Bond Measure as a private citizen. Lindsay recently worked with Cascade Policy Institute as a research associate and now works for Third Century Solutions on the Oregon Transformation Project, which brings to Oregon citizens information and opportunities to bring about lasting budget and regulatory reforms that will ensure a robust and growing private sector. Berschauer’s son will be entering the public school system next year.

Biggest Bang for Your Buck? A Closer Look at Portland’s $548 Million School Modernization Proposal

Lindsay BerschauerCascade Commentary

Biggest Bang for Your Buck?
A Closer Look at Portland’s $548 Million School Modernization Proposal

by Lindsay Berschauer

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The Portland Public School District held a public hearing December 1 concerning the $548 million School Modernization Bond Measure it hopes to place on the May 2011 ballot.

The District argues that such an expensive bond, the largest local bond in Oregon state history, is necessary to tear down and rebuild only eight of the 85 schools in the District. For those eight schools, they have allocated $372 million. The other $176 million is earmarked for minor upgrades to other schools and paying off previous school improvement debt that the District has incurred. The goal? The District argues that the new schools will increase property values in Portland, improve student achievement and behavior and increase enrollment. But in this down economy, are Portland residents getting the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to the cost value of these “rebuild” schools?

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Colossal Bond, Colossal Mistake

Lindsay BerschauerQuickPoint!

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By Lindsay Berschauer

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The Portland Public School District announced last week that it is seeking a bond measure to the tune of $548 million, targeted mainly for renovation of some of the lowest performing schools in the district, Roosevelt and Jefferson High Schools. Roosevelt and Jefferson serve a combined 1,550 students, a fraction of what most other public schools serve. The District is seeking short-term one- and two-year bonds and asking taxpayers, or more specifically property owners, to pony up all but $100 million of the estimated $548 million cost.

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Losing Choice in the Portland Public Redesign

Christina Martin
QuickPoint!

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By Christina Martin

Losing Choice in the Portland Public Redesign

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The Portland Public School District is considering a redesign that would close Marshall High School, convert Benson from a four-year vocational magnet into a two-year technical program, and eliminate most families’ option to transfer to other district schools. The plan is to make every neighborhood school big enough to support a wider variety of classes by keeping neighborhood children in their local schools.

This will trap many kids in schools that don’t serve their needs. Families with means will move close to the school that best fits their children’s needs. Families without means will be left behind, creating more inequity for the neediest families.

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