While Portland Public Schools loudly debates closing some schools and reconfiguring others, teachers and parents are worried about a much quieter but significant long-term development for local education.
They're troubled by how entrenched billionaire Eli Broad's Los Angeles foundation, which is devoted to making schools more businesslike, has become in Portland schools.
They're raising red flags about the private Broad Foundation's payment for all seven Portland School Board members to take weeklong training sessions in Utah and its help with funding two key district positions.
Jeff Miller, incoming president of the Portland Association of Teachers, calls the foundation "a basically conservative organization whose goals are what you'd expect from most business-oriented groups."
Broad, founder of two Fortune 500 companies, was the 39th richest person in America last year, according to Forbes magazine. And he is very interested in putting a good chunk of his billions into K-12 public education.
He says urban public schools are failing and must adopt methods from business to succeed, such as competition, accountability based on "measurables," and unhampered management authority—all focusing on the bottom line of student achievement, as measured by standardized tests.
Broad wants to create competition by starting publicly funded, privately run charter schools, to enforce accountability by linking teacher pay to student test scores, and to limit teachers' say in curriculum and transfer decisions.
In 1999, he formed the Broad Foundation and set up pilot projects in districts nationwide as well as training district leaders and school board members to become agents for the change he seeks.
In Portland, the foundation has flown all seven school board members since 2003 to Park City, Utah, for weeklong all-expense-paid training.
And the foundation has paid 75 percent in 2005, and 50 percent this year, of the $80,000 annual salaries of two "fellows" it placed in Portland Public Schools for "special projects." Alex Hernandez, an ex-investment banker who later managed charter schools in Los Angeles, is working on the redesign of Jefferson High School's cluster. And corporate consultant Sara Allan is working to find "efficiencies" (i.e., savings) in the central office.
With help from the Broad Foundation, Denver and Minneapolis are implementing systems of teacher performance pay tied to student test scores, a proposal that the Portland Association of Teachers would fight hard against.
But it's not just the teachers union that's alarmed by the foundation's influence.
Parents like Anne Trudeau of the Neighborhood Schools Alliance, a grassroots parents group, see a right-wing tilt to Broad's ideas that she considers a poor fit for progressive Portland.
"I don't think our school board are puppets of Broad," Trudeau says, "but I think the influence is insidious."
Foundation spokeswoman Karen Denne rejects any charge that the foundation is right wing, noting that Broad is a "lifelong Democrat."
As for the training in Utah, Portland Public Schools Board co-chair David Wynde described it as a kind of "good governance" seminar, teaching boards to hire good managers, set direction, and then get out of the way.
And as for the Broad "residents" in the district, Wynde says: "They're here doing work that the superintendent and the district is engaged in. They're not parachuting in with some secret agenda."
"We hear loudly from the public that they want accountability, efficiency and fiscal responsibility," adds district spokeswoman Brenda Gustafson. "That's the help we're getting from Alex and Sara."