Voices 2013: Lainie Block Wilker

A parent activist becomes a powerful schools critic—and a force PPS can't ignore.

LAINIE BLOCK WILKER: "I think a lot of families are starting to opt out," says Wilker (pictured with daughters Hannah, 11, and Callie, 8) on the fate of Portland Public Schools. "I think it's the beginning of kind of a brain drain."
Intro Hales Parrish margulies Bueno Fred Wilker
If you Google the name Lainie Block Wilker, you get a photograph of Bobbie Regan instead.

In the photo, Regan, the longest-serving member of Portland Public Schools' Board of Education, is weeping after voters in 2011 had just narrowly rejected a $548 million school bond.

It was a shocking defeat for PPS—and nobody deserved more credit for the defeat than Wilker. (In 2012, voters approved a scaled-down, $482 million bond.)

Wilker, 44, has emerged as one of the most outspoken and potent critics of Portland Public Schools. 

PPS leaders had for years become accustomed to being attacked by anti-taxers, such as the late Don McIntire, or African-American leaders, such as Ron Herndon, whose protests forced PPS to direct more money to minority students.

But Wilker is an unlikely opponent: an intellectual-property lawyer who is a self-described "liberal Democratic soccer mom from Laurelhust" with a third-grader and a sixth-grader in Portland schools.

Her shift from being a rabid school-district supporter to vocal critic has cost her allies among activist parents. "They all became part of the establishment," Wilker says. "I'm not part of the establishment."

Wilker has now turned her criticism to PPS's efforts to reform high schools, including increasing remedial classes at the expense of programs for high achievers such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate. A year ago, she founded Smart Schools PDX, which has proposed what she says are data-backed solutions and a strategic plan for K-12 that's an alternative to the district's approach.

Wilker talked to WW about her criticism of PPS's plans for high schools, how she handles being labeled an elitist, and why 2013 will be a key year in the fate of Portland's schools.

Portland Public Schools has released a report that says with its redesign of high schools it has lowered the drop-out rate, raised the graduation rate and narrowed the achievement gaps. Do you believe it?
Well, the way they've done it basically is they've shaved down higher-achieving students to bring up the bottom. They have slightly more kids graduating, but the ACT scores show that they're not prepared for college. Our largest employers are saying they're not prepared for the work force. 

If you bump up the graduation rate and kids can't get a job and they can't get into college, then how have we served them? 

But the district has a history of low achievement generally on the part of minority and low-income students. Shouldn't that be a high priority?
Actually, the majority of Portland dropouts are white, and less than half qualified for free and reduced lunch, so statistically it's actually not the biggest problem. If you're not investing in the middle or the top, then we're not going to have jobs, we're not going to have money for social services, and we're not going to attract high-tech employers.

The achievement gap is a poverty issue. The largest factor in the achievement gap is the loss of summer learning. So why don't we do OMSI camps or other rigorous programs for all these kids? Instead of drumming groups, why don't we have robotics teams?

You've said PPS leaders want equitable mediocrity. What do you mean?
Well, I think that [Superintendent] Carole Smith has a very myopic focus on North Portland. I think she listens to special-interest groups who make a lot of noise.

There have been a lot of historic injustices. I understand that. But the reality is, 79 percent of kids are transferring out of the Jefferson catchment area, and they've done better at Franklin and Benson and Grant. So why don't we invest in what's working? 

You've advocated for more things like robotics programs and International Baccalaureate and AP courses at every high school. Aren't you just an elitist?
No. Robotics is skill-building. It's the hands-on learning that includes programming and engages all kinds, including nontraditional students. We're preparing kids for a global economy and the IB program is globally recognized. 

You've criticized Grant High for reducing AP courses and beefing up offerings for lower achievers. Why?
Just look at the scores since the high-school redesign. Grant and Franklin both nose-dived 10 points.

You've been critical of PPS for restricting transfers to Benson Polytechnic High School, in part to help rebuild Jefferson and Roosevelt highs. Why?
Because PPS is restricting transfers to Benson, a school that is serving economically disadvantaged kids of color and giving them a career path. We can't afford to operate all of our high schools. We should focus on the programs that work. Why are you going to deny a kid a ticket out of poverty to a middle-class job to keep them at a school that has been designated as a dropout factory?

You've said PPS should close high schools. Which ones?
Jefferson and Madison, if you just look at the numbers—geography, demographic projection, graduation rates, the capture rates, the transfers. All those patterns.

But a lot of their problems are attributable to poverty. Closing the schools doesn't end poverty.
Right, but those kids will have access to better schools. 

Why do you think the educational establishment rejects what you're saying?
There's this kind of political correctness, which unfortunately has kind of divorced from economic reality.

You began as a pro-district activist and worked to pass Measures 66 and 67, which raised taxes on business and the wealthy. What turned you from a PPS booster to PPS critic?
Measure 66 and 67 was a turning point. It was sold to us that it was going to be a steppingstone to kicker reform. It was pretty clear to me the approach was badly flawed and that we were going to burn the business community. That's when I realized that the education people were not looking at the full chess board. 

[Some activists] spent so much time spinning our wheels on teacher-evaluations forms and rallies. Why go to a rally if there's no plan for revenue reform? If you don't have a plan, then maybe we need to create a plan.

In 2011, you helped defeat the $584 million school bond. Did you vote for the 2012 measure that passed?
No. I feel like it was going to have to be a vote of no confidence to get competent leadership that values academic achievement. 

Will Gov. John Kitzhaber's 2011 education-reform package benefit PPS?
I've asked to work with them to target STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] teachers. I asked to work with [Oregon Chief Education Officer] Rudy Crew and said, "Look, there are major industries that want to support vo-tech training, but they're frustrated with leadership." I haven't heard back.

You don't see any hopeful signs?
What Rudy Crew would need to do is invoke the Department of Education's turnaround authority and replace PPS and its executive team and the school board. They're out of compliance with every educational standard. We're talking about implementing a business plan that requires a competent management team.

If PPS were a business, it would be placed in receivership. 

WWeek 2015

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