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January 21st, 2004 The Nose | The Nose
 

Charting a new course in pettiness

     
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Three weeks into January, the Nose has kept his resolution: to rid himself of jealousy, envy and pettiness. The Nose doubts he will make it to February, but he's been a saint compared to the actions of the Portland School District, which has been treating retired teacher Chuck Arthur like a downer Holstein.

Arthur, who taught for 32 years, now runs a public charter school in the David Douglas district in east Multnomah County. He offers a stripped-down, back-to-basics public education short on administrators and long on what's called "direct instruction," where kids get reading and math drilled into their heads until they learn.

It ain't fancy or particularly creative, but research says Arthur's method works pretty well, which is why school officials in Woodburn and the Reynolds districts moved quickly to approve his applications to set up shop there.

But Portland, where Arthur wants to set up a charter school for 75 students from kindergarten through second grade, is jacking him around, complaining that his proposal has too many school days and not enough administrators ("Failing the Logic Test," WW, Dec. 10, 2003).

Look, the Nose knows Portland is as fond of charter schools as Paris Hilton is of polyester pantsuits. Maybe it's competition, or the fact that when a kid chooses a charter school in Portland the district only gets to keep $1,000 of state money--the rest goes to the charter school. Either way, what the district is doing to Arthur is self-defeating.

District officials have backed off some criticisms, but over the holidays Chet Edwards, one of 13 bureaucrats who reviewed Arthur's application, sent him a list of 21 questions that still needed to be answered.

Those questions are fodder for those who question the management of K-12 education, the largest expenditure of state funds.

Then there's pettiness. In December, board members grilled Arthur about his proposed school's name--Portland Arthur Academy Neighborhood Public School. The first question in the follow-up letter addressed his temerity in using the word "neighborhood, which, Edwards claims, might cause confusion between Arthur's tiny startup and traditional PPS schools.

Then there's the board's refusal to deal with a significant policy question. Arthur asked the district to rent three classrooms--all he needs to get started--for a buck a year. His request caused a conniption at Portland district headquarters in December, and the follow-up letter restated the board's position: "Virtually free use of district facilities is not acceptable."

That policy is red meat not only for government-bashers but anybody with the common sense of a gnat. Last time the Nose checked, Portland Public Schools enrollment was plummeting faster than the Blazers' road record--down more than 2,000 students last fall.

At 30 kids per class, that decline should have freed up nearly 70 classrooms this year alone, to say nothing of underused space--which includes entire school buildings--from previous enrollment drops.

The Measure 30 campaign is a battle between those who trust government and those who don't. The Nose assumes Portland public-school officials are in the first camp; but now the Nose isn't so sure.

 
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