The Portland School Board will hear a proposal tonight on substantial changes to the district's transfer policies.
Right now, families in Portland Public Schools don't have to send their children to the schools nearest to their homes. Instead, they can enter an annual transfer lottery in the hopes of winning a spot at a different neighborhood school or a special "focus" program, such as Sunnyside Environmental School or da Vinci Arts Middle School.
Proponents of the existing transfer rules credit them with keeping middle-class families in Portland Public Schools.
Critics say the rules may have curbed white flight to the suburbs, but they've created a system of haves and have nots within PPS as well-to-do families flee underperforming schools.
Tonight's proposal recommends curbing neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers in an effort to prop up under-enrolled schools and bring equity to the school district. It would do that by ending the annual lottery for neighborhood transfers and replacing it with a subjective but more limited petition process.
Here are five things to know going into tonight's public hearing on the proposed changes:
1. Portland's transfer system has its roots in efforts to desegregate schools.
Prior to 1980, Portland Public Schools bused black students from North and Northeast Portland to predominately white schools outside of those neighborhoods. The misguided theory then was that black students would perform better if they attended school with whites, but the burden of integration fell only on black students. Protests led by a brilliant Reed College alumnus named Ron Herndon brought forced busing to a halt, and a new system blossomed in its place: school choice. Under the new system, black families seeking better opportunities could choose to send their children to different schools. From this system, desegregation was supposed to flow.
2. Portland's desegregation plan didn't work.
But it was largely white families who opted to transfer their students to different schools. Jefferson High School offers one clear example. "In 1990, 33 percent of the students at Jefferson were white," a 2007 story about PPS's failed desegregation efforts reported. "By 2006? Less than 13 percent. During the same period, the percentage of black students increased from 56 to 68 percent."
Neighborhood demographics weren't to blame. PPS's policies were. A 2006 audit of the school district's transfer policies showed that PPS schools were more segregated than the city's neighborhoods.
3. The current transfer system is blind to race.
A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court Case limits school districts' use of race in determining students' school assignments. PPS gives additional weight to poor and low-income students seeking transfers. But it doesn't use race as a factor in the lottery system.
4. The results of the lottery have striking racial components, however.
Today, the pool of lottery applicants is disproportionately white and upper income. "Focus" schools are, as a result, whiter and richer than the average PPS school. The group studying PPS's transfer system and making tonight's recommendations found that the lottery effectively shut out minority and low-income families from these popular programs.
5. One possible solution has its roots in another failed policy.
Portland's lottery didn't immediately follow the end of forced busing. It came along just over a decade ago and replaced a system that allowed parents to petition administrators directly for transfers. That system was deemed unfair, though, because some families could better navigate the school district bureaucracy. That led to abuse and the perception that some people were gaming the system.
The proposal tonight calls for ending the lottery for neighborhood-to-neighborhood transfers. That would significantly reduce the number of students fleeing their home schools.
But the proposal also calls for beefing up the existing petition system, which gives families the opportunity to transfer schools outside of the annual lottery in the event of "hardships." The goal would be to make sure that families that have compelling reasons for wanting to transfer have opportunities to make their cases.
Also, right now, students of color use the petition system more often than they use the lottery system.
"The petition process also differs from the lottery in that it is based on people telling their story, something families of color have told our committee that they're more comfortable with than a random lottery," the proposal reads. "This suggests that the petition process is a more appropriate way for families to request transfers into other neighborhood schools. With a strong focus on cultural relevancy, the process could, in fact, decrease barriers for historically underserved families. Furthermore, the petition process may accomplish one key objective that a lottery can't: it can give the district important information about why students are leaving some schools and seeking others."