Couldn’t We Let Parents Allocate the Budget for Portland Public Schools?

Most parents don’t have the time, energy or skills to cobble a school together.

Students attend a Portland Association of Teachers picket. (Brian Brose)

Portland Public Schools’ annual budget is $2.17 billion—about $49,000 per student. Couldn’t we put the kids into pods of 10 students and give the parents $490,000 a year to allocate? Public education is among our noblest commitments; let’s do it well and get value for the resources we commit. —Thinking of the Little Children

You seem like a well-intentioned sort, Thinking, so I’m going to assume your support for dismantling the public school system and replacing it with a voucher program comes from a place of genuine concern.

Many proponents of so-called school choice, however, have less pure motives. Rich people support it because they hate taxes and sneer at families who can’t afford to send their kids to private school. (The Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos are big fans.) Religious zealots support it because they don’t want state schools indoctrinating their children with liberal dogma like evolution and French.

I grant that your vision of curtailing waste and giving parents a larger role in their kids’ education is compelling. In practice, though, do you really trust 4,400 groups of 10 to 20 parents to spend $490,000 responsibly? We had enough trouble trying to enforce accountability on all those PPP loans.

Also,’s not really $490,000. Once you take PPS’s preexisting obligations (bond payments, capital acquisitions, pensions, etc.) into account, what’s left to spend per kid is more like $16,000, or just $160,000 total for your pod. You may say those obligations are wasteful and shouldn’t have happened, but that doesn’t make the money any more available now.

In any case, most parents don’t have the time, energy or skills to cobble a school together. If you give them money from the public schools budget (and you can find a way to keep them from just pocketing it), they’ll likely spend it on private school tuition. Indeed, that’s already happening in Arizona, with other conservative states not far behind.

School vouchers that even rich people (whose kids are already in private school) can get has long been a right-wing dream. That’s obviously a terrible idea, so now they’re called “Education Savings Accounts.” Arizona’s are worth $7,000 per Burberry-clad child, with an estimated 8% of students using them by 2025. Will this result in the flight of all but the most disadvantaged children from public schools, or merely be a giveaway to our wealthiest families? It’s unclear. Either way: Gross!

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