Equity Funding has not closed the racial achievement gap in Portland Schools

By Ethan Rohrbach

April 2024

Non-white students have historically performed worse in Portland schools than white students. Knowing this, Portland Public Schools (PPS) announced in 2011 that:

Closing this achievement gap while raising achievement for all students is the top priority of the Board of Education, the Superintendent and all district staff. Race must cease to be a predictor of student achievement and success.[1]

To attain this goal, the district was to “provide every student with equitable access to high quality and culturally relevant instruction…even when this means differentiating resources to accomplish this goal.”

With this policy adoption, the District intended to spend more in schools where academic achievement was low. This spending differential would be referred to as “equity funding.”

The primary purpose of the extra money would be to hire additional fulltime equivalent (FTE) staff, known as “Equity FTE.” Additionally, the district would improve instructional training for teachers to address racial disparities.

The Racial Educational Equity Policy, introduced in 2011, required the Superintendent to produce “action plans,” annual reports with information on financing to “identify specific staff leads on all key work, and include clear procedures for district schools and staff.”[2] The Equity Action Plan for each school was presented as a continuum of steps, and each school checked annually where it fell along the continuum. School staff were to see that “Leadership is trained” and form an equity team to “engage in structured dialogue about race to build racial awareness.”

The action plan is third in a series of paperwork, collectively called a School Improvement Plan (SIP), annually assigned to each school.[3] The SIP should thus ensure that the needs of all students, especially Black and Native American students, are met.[4] According to Dr. Renard Adams, the Director of the Office for Research, Assessment, and Accountability at PPS:

School based leaders are required to align their use of Equity FTE with school improvement plans or district goals… the use of funds is examined in accordance with the school-based theory of action outlined in the school improvement plan.[5] 

In the 2013-2014 school year, with these action plans in use, Portland Public Schools introduced General Fund Equity allocation into the annual budgeting process. The primary purpose was to provide extra funding in order to increase the number of full-time teachers. These were the Equity FTE positions.

At the recommendation of Superintendent Carole Smith and the Board of Directors, certain K-8 schools would qualify for a maximum of 8% FTE in Equity financing—4% if at least 45% of their students were Historically Underserved, and another 4% if at least 30% qualified for free or reduced-price lunches.

To count as “historically underserved,” a student must be registered in the District as Black, Latino, Native American, or Pacific Islander; qualify for Special Education services; qualify for free or reduced-price meals through the Direct Certification platform, which means a low socio-economic status; or qualify for English as a Second Language (ESL) services.[6] These were merely labels for the purpose of allocating money; there was no attempt to find out if any students had been historically underserved, or to even define what “underserved” meant in terms of instruction.

Schools surpassing the minimum requirements receive a specific amount of these funds as seen fit by PPS. However, high schools do not need to meet a specific floor to receive funding—all qualify for Equity FTE in some form.[7] According to original budget documents, the money is generally intended for staffing. Importantly, after schools surpass a floor for Equity FTE, the PPS Board of Education determines how much individual schools get each year, not according to a fixed rate.[8]

The equity funding policy was problematic from the start. In February of 2013, Richard Tracy, then District Performance Auditor for the Portland School Board, determined “the district lacks a defined process for reviewing, approving, monitoring, and assessing school improvement.”


Ethan Rohrbach is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.


[1] Portland Public Schools, Racial Educational Equity Policy, 2.10.010-P (June 13, 2011), 1, https://www.pps.net/Page/1870. Retrieved August 8, 2023.

[2] Portland Public Schools, Racial Educational Equity Policy, 2.10.010-P (June 13, 2011), 2-3, https://www.pps.net/Page/1870. Retrieved August 8, 2023.

[3] Richard Tracy, School Improvement Plans at Portland Public Schools: A report by the District Performance Auditor, Portland Public Schools (February 1, 2013), 39, https://www.pps.net/cms/lib/OR01913224/Centricity/Domain/219/2013_02_PA_School-Improvement-Plans.pdf. Retrieved August 8, 2023.

[4] Portland Public Schools, “Theory of Action” (January 24, 2019), https://www.pps.net/cms/lib/OR01913224/Centricity/Domain/4/Theory_of_Action.pdf. Retrieved August 8, 2023.

[5] Renard Adams, Outlook email to author, August 7, 2023.

[6] Portland Public Schools, 2013-14 Annual Budget (June 17, 2013), 7, 41, https://www.pps.net/cms/lib/OR01913224/Centricity/Domain/52/Finance%20Administration/Budget/2013_14_Annual_Budget.pdf. Retrieved August 8, 2023.

[7] Portland Public Schools, 2012-13 Annual Budget (June 25, 2012), 9, https://www.pps.net/cms/lib/OR01913224/Centricity/Domain/52/Finance%20Administration/Budget/2012_13_Annual_Budget.pdf. Retrieved August 8, 2023.

[8] There is and was no explicit mention of any prescribed rate by which these FTEs are negotiated, though school size and the extent to which principals lobby for non-formula FTE are probably determinative.

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