School Colors

What happens when a school district spends millions on integration but gives parents the right to choose their children's schools?

Last week, far from the sideshow of the César Chávez street-naming dispute, a far weightier racial issue was on the agenda. The venue was not the Portland City Council chambers but the blue-hued walls of the Portland Public Schools boardroom. The players were not the salaried commissioners who run the city but a handful of elected volunteers—School Board members who, in ways large and small, determine the fate of Portland.

With television cameras rolling, the board was considering a controversial audit that showed Portland's schools have become, over time, more segregated than their neighborhoods. What was particularly painful to confront was the finding that the school district's "school choice" policy, whose roots stretch back to Portland's 1980 school "desegregation" plan, was a large part of the problem.

So last Monday, after 17 months of studying the audit and no small amount of hand-wringing, the Portland School Board met, discussed and acknowledged the failures of school choice. "Ours is a tale of two cities," said Dilafruz Williams, one of seven School Board members. "We are a segregated city by race and by class."

And with that the board did absolutely nothing.

"This is a time bomb," says parent Steve Rawley. "They don't see what's coming. They don't have a long-term vision. They're kicking this problem down the road for somebody else to deal with, and what's at stake is the livabilityof Portland's neighborhoods.

"You can't just wave your hands around and say you're going to do something about it but not actually change the policy," Rawley says. "The policy itself is at odds with equity."

Welcome to week six of Carole Smith's tenure as the new superintendent of Portland Public Schools.

On April 14, 1980, Jimmy Carter was president, the disco era was still alive on the radio, Mount St. Helens was getting ready to erupt, and Portland headlines were filled with the rumblings of a young, charismatic and combative black man named Ron Herndon. A Head Start worker and 1970 Reed College graduate from southeastern Kansas, Herndon was stomping his feet, jumping on tables, kicking School Board members' nameplates to the floor and telling Portlanders what they may have known but didn't want to face: that black children were being treated unequally in this city. Forget housing. Forget the disparity in jail sentences. What really ticked Herndon off was the lack of good schools in black neighborhoods and the racist policies that put the burden of integration on black students and their families, a burden that had resulted in the scattering of black students to schools across the city.

Until 1980, Portland had employed what amounted to mandatory busing to "improve" the racial balance of its public schools.

Herndon and the other members of the Black United Front wanted to stop this. They knew how to get attention. And the School Board eventually responded with a plan to desegregate Portland Public Schools "voluntarily." How? By ending forced busing. By infusing the city's black schools with extra money and teachers, creating additional "magnet" schools in black neighborhoods and letting black and white students transfer out of their neighborhoods to different schools—if they wanted to. For the first time in years, all students, regardless of race, could attend their neighborhood school or go elsewhere. The idea was to boost the quality of the black schools (to make those schools better and to attract white students) and to give black students the choice to move voluntarily to white schools. Out of this blender of options, equality would follow.

At least that was the plan. "It felt great," says Steve Buel, a member of the School Board in 1980. "It felt like it was a huge accomplishment."

Look at today's numbers and there is no other conclusion: Despite tens of millions of dollars spent on programs to support the policies, voluntary desegregation and school choice have heightened neighborhood segregation by race and by class.

And this pattern is no more evident than at Jefferson High School. In 1990, 33 percent of the students at Jefferson were white. By 2006? Less than 13 percent. During the same period, the percentage of black students increased from 56 to 68 percent (see graph, above).

So what happened? Both white and black families have abandoned Jefferson for other schools, either in Portland or the suburbs, sending overall enrollment at Jefferson into a tailspin. But the gap between the number of white and black students has doubled in just 10 years.

Today, young white families who have moved to gentrifying neighborhoods like Albina, Overlook, Arbor Lodge and Concordia have exercised school choice to send their children to schools outside their neighborhoods. Meanwhile, more black parents who have stayed in those neighborhoods have stayed put in their neighborhood schools. The white enrollment at Vernon School, a pre-kindergarten through seventh-grade school just north of the Alberta Arts District, dropped from 27 to 11 percent between 1990 and 2006. Call it school choice or white flight, the bottom line is that the shift has drained some schools of students—and, with those students, money, other resources and, some would say, the schools' chance for recovery. In Portland, school funding follows the student.

"We saw some neighborhood schools really suffering under that program," says Portland City Auditor Gary Blackmer, who helped coordinate the audit considered last week by the School Board.

Others agree. "The current policy has produced more hardship for disadvantaged kids and their families," says Jeff Miller, president of the Portland Association of Teachers union.

On its very first page, the audit declares: "district objectives not met."

Yet, last Monday, when the board was supposed to initiate a response, school administrators urged "caution in creating policy changes," as Judy Brennan, a midlevel district administrator, told the board.

Instead, Brennan recommended creating an advisory committee. Superintendent Smith said school choice alone was not to blame, and she echoed Brennan's cautious tone. "When we go to solve one problem, we may create another one," Smith said.

The inertia on school choice is somewhat understandable. Entrenched ideas can often withstand even the clearest evidence they cause harm. In addition, a lot of very powerful constituencies believe in the absolute necessity of school choice. Nationally, it's a keystone of the federal No Child Left Behind act, promoted as a tool for improving "underperforming" schools.

Perhaps no local group is more influential in shaping the direction of our city's schools than the Portland Schools Foundation, the 10-year-old fundraising group whose board includes a number of business and educational leaders. The foundation has no official stance on school choice, but various board members have said school choice plays a fundamental role in keeping Portland Public Schools from following the path of other urban districts, such as Boston, which has lost many of its middle-class parents to the suburbs and private schools.

"You're going to see a shrinking of a certain kind of parent by not offering school choice," says Beryl Morrison, a member of the foundation's board and the PTA president of Alameda Elementary School, a wealthy Portland school in Northeast.

Lolenzo Poe, a former member of the Portland School Board and one of the few members of the foundation board who is black, put it more bluntly: "I think it plays an important role in keeping the white middle class in the district."

School Board member Bobbie Regan agrees it plays a role in keeping Portland's enrollment as high as possible. At last week's meeting, she said parents who don't find what they want within existing schools will instead form charter schools, siphoning more public money away from established programs.

One of the most vocal champions of school choice is neither an elected official nor an educator, but Susan Nielsen, a columnist and associate editor for The Oregonian who frequently writes about schools.

"Letting families vote with their feet is an administrative pain, true," Nielsen wrote in June 2006 after the controversial audit made headlines. "But it's the best way to retain the largest and most diverse pool of students in the public school system. It's also the best way to force the district to get its act together."

Less than a year later, Nielsen was again writing about school choice, this time to dismiss the program's critics, including an up-and-coming School Board candidate who was then threatening to take down an incumbent.

"They insist that transfers cause school inequality," Nielsen wrote in May 2007. "It's like saying crutches cause broken legs."

Ruth Adkins is a white, Yale-educated market researcher whose three daughters attend Portland public schools.

An outspoken critic of Portland Public Schools' administration, Adkins ran for and won a seat on the School Board last spring, against incumbent Doug Morgan, in part because of her concerns about school choice. "[L]ow-income children shouldn't have to travel across town to get a decent public education," Adkins wrote on her campaign website, sounding a bit like Ron Herndon nearly three decades earlier. "The School Board has yet to follow up...with the needed comprehensive review of the transfer system. As a school board member, I will make this a priority, paying close attention to the issues raised by the auditors. Every Portland Public Schools policy needs to take into account how all students will be impacted, not just those in the middle class who happen to have the most power and the strongest voice. No more 'trickle-down' education policies!"

Only a few months into her four-year term, Adkins appears to some to have moderated her views. "I never thought I would come in and say we have to end all transfers," Adkins says.

Some of her closest allies from her campaign have declared her a traitor. "Give us a freakin' break, Ruth," the blogger "NoPo Parent" writes online. "Stand up for what you used to stand for."

Others are holding out hope that she may yet force some changes. "Ruth Adkins...must commit to her campaign promise that all children living in all neighborhoods will have equitable curricular opportunities," says Jefferson parent-teacher organization president Nancy Smith. "If not, then she will have betrayed the promises she made in her campaign to Portland's neighborhood schoolchildren. What the district is advocating is going to perpetuate the decline in enrollment and educational opportunities for the hundreds of students who are already being denied the educational opportunities afforded other students. It's immoral what they're doing."

Steve Rawley thinks the solution is staring the district in the face. He says it's time to start putting the brakes on school choice by curbing transfers first at the elementary-school level. Doing so, he says, will pump money into the schools that have been losing it for years.

Seven years ago, Steve and his wife, Nancy, moved to the Overlook neighborhood in North Portland because they found a 100-year-old Dutch Colonial-style house on a cozy street that they could afford.

Self-declared "yuppies," the Rawleys wanted to send their children to their neighborhood schools. They envisioned one day sending their children to Jefferson.

But a quick walk down their block, north of Killingsworth Street and not far from Jefferson, is a lesson in the reality of school choice: More than one-third of all students in Portland opt at some point to transfer out of their neighborhood schools.

In a city that prides itself on the livability of its neighborhoods, school choice fragments communities, the couple says. For example, the 20 children who have lived on the Rawleys' block since the couple moved to the neighborhood have gone to 12 different schools, including one private school.

Compounding the problem, in the eyes of the Rawleys, is the fact that Jefferson is divided into four different academies, one of which is housed on an entirely different campus, 3 miles from the main building. The school's division further limits resources available to students because it reduces the number of classes offered in any one school.

"I would be thrilled to have my kids go to Jefferson," Steve Rawley says. "But they don't have the offerings. I'm not looking for a white school. I'm looking for what my kids need."

School choice is to blame for this, the Rawleys say.

To back up their assertions, Steve Rawley spent the summer poring over data on transfer patterns across the district and discovered that the Jefferson High School cluster, including elementary- and middle-school programs, lost about $15 million in the 2006-2007 school year because children who lived in the neighborhood decided to attend schools far from their home.

Now the Rawleys are moving to Beaverton.

"I feel like no matter what we do here, it's not going to make a difference," Nancy Rawley says.

And theirs is a cautionary tale, they add. Other middle-class parents will soon be confronting the same problems they are, and many of them will elect to move to the suburbs because school choice has perpetuated a two-tier system.

"Ten years from now, these people who are moving into these neighborhoods are suddenly going to wake up and say, 'What the fuck is wrong with these schools in these neighborhoods?'" Steve Rawley says. "The elementary schools aren't that bad. But when you get to the middle schools and high schools, it's messed up. It's seriously bad. It's inequitable, and it's obvious."

In addition to advocating a gradual decline in neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers, the Rawleys say the School Board needs to equalize the programming offered at all its schools—to remove the reasons for transferring in the first place.

"Right now we have seven people on the School Board, including Ruth Adkins, who's supposedly the biggest advocate for neighborhood schools, saying, 'Hey, it's fine, everybody likes this policy,'" Steve Rawley says. "They have no clue that it's a problem. The best-case scenario is, two years from now, we have some turnover on the board, and two years after that we have some more turnover on the board, and then maybe they start looking at changing the policy. That puts us out four years. I'm sorry, I don't have that much time. My daughter's starting high school soon. She has middle school before that, and I don't like the options. I want her to go to school in the neighborhood with her neighbors. I don't want her commuting across town."

The woman in charge of leading Portland Public Schools through this muddle is Carole Smith. Fresh out of Oberlin College in Ohio in 1976, Smith began her career in Massachusetts, working—ironically—to desegregate Boston's public schools.

And while some of Portland schools are more—rather than less—segregated than they were two decades ago, Smith appears unwilling to give up on school choice. Yet she has agreed to give the School Board a plan in January to address some of its effects.

"It's not like you're going to replicate everything in every part of the city, because you're not," Smith says. "We can't afford to replicate everything and have every part of the city have a science and tech school, every part have an arts school. We're not going to get that. But across the whole city? Can we end up with some things that go deep and really prepare kids for post-secondary education? Yeah."

In the meantime, the Interstate Avenue/César E. Chávez Boulevard renaming ruckus has garnered far more attention.

"At some point [the César Chávez debate] will be over," Commissioner Erik Sten says. "It probably won't really determine whether a kid goes to jail or college. But the schools strategy, whether or not we can make the struggling schools work and all the things we're talking about, that's the basic DNA of the city."

Separate but equal, revisited

The only thing more odd than the Portland School Board's inaction in the face of numbers that show Portland Public Schools are more segregated is the fact that a number of African-American educators in Portland say this is fine.

"The greatest mishap for students of color was integration," says Charles Hopson, president of the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators and principal of Franklin High School in Southeast Portland. "We were like kids standing in a candy store. We thought what we were going to get was one thing, based on what was presented to us. But what did we really get based on the evidence of desegregation?"

More than 50 years after Brown v. Board of Education and nearly six months after another U.S. Supreme Court case invalidated integrationefforts stemming from that landmark civil-rights decision, Hopson's question has newfound urgency.

Ron Herndon, one of the authors of Portland's desegregation plan, and now the chairman of the National Head Start Association, says he still holds to the idea that every child should have a high-quality school in his or her neighborhood. But the racial makeup of those neighborhood schools makes no difference to Herndon. "The problems with poor-quality education do not have anything to do with the complexion of the students," Herndon says. "This becomes a very convenient distraction."

Nearly 30 years after Portland ended what amounted to forced busing, Herndon says the goals of earlier integration efforts had more to do with what white adults wanted for their schools than what children of color needed to succeed. "I don't think the presence of middle-class white kids is going to help black kids learn," Herndon says.

Integration as a tool for creating high-quality schools is a myth, he adds. Conversely, segregated schools aren't such a bad thing. To suggest otherwise is "insulting and borders on racist," Herndon says.

Cynthia Harris, the new principal at Jefferson High School this year, considers her words carefully when talking about race at her school. She says she's not sure if integration is the answer, but she also doesn't say it's not the answer. "I'm not going to drag white people in here," she says. "I want them to walk in."

Having seen the results of mandatory integration, Herndon agrees with that approach. "Don't force it on people," he says. "Let people come to those conclusions on their own." —Beth Slovic

School choice is supposed to let any child go to any school in the city, so long as there is space. Every year, about 5,000 of the school district's approximately 46,000 students apply to transfer, according to 2006 statistics.

A lottery, developed in 2002, determines who may transfer and where. Applications are weighted according to priorities that include gender and socioeconomic diversity. Race is not a factor.

The federal No Child Left Behind act of 2001 requires school districts to let students transfer from "failing" schools. An average of 350 Portland middle- and high-school students opt to do so each year. Jefferson High students are among those given top priority for transfers.

The audit of Portland's school choice policy revealed students who transferred from "failing" schools did not show improved academic performance at their new schools.

In Beaverton, 93 percent of students attend their neighborhood schools. In Portland, only 63 percent of students do.

Steve Rawley's blog is Nancy Rawley also blogs about school choice at

Between 2003 and 2007, charter school enrollment in portland tripled from 346 to 1,082.

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