What Choice Do Portland Parents Have When There Is No Choice?

Feb 10, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Iris Maria Chávez

In all my years of advocacy and community engagement, nothing gets parents as fired up as deciding where their kids will attend school. During School Choice Week we heard a lot from people on all sides of the debate. Some who just want more options, some who worry that more doesn’t necessarily mean better and then the folks who are fierce advocates for focusing on the number of quality neighborhood schools for their children. So, it’s with interest that I watch what’s happening right now in my current home of Portland, Oregon. No, I’m not talking about the latest news piece on where young people go to retire, or where tattoo sleeves are the norm, or the one describing the most diverse thing about Portland is our  craft beer scene. While all of that is true, right now Portland is mired in an epic debate on school zone boundary changes within the Portland Public Schools district (PPS). The debate began as a means to address a citywide concern of overcrowding and instructional options for middle-schoolers—but those concerns have turned into a fight among particular west-side parents about their kids having to attend “those schools.” You know, the ones people are always okay supporting but wouldn’t want their own child to actually attend. The schools that are described by parents of privilege as “too far away” (read: in a neighborhood they find undesirable) or “not a good fit for my student” (read: doesn’t have all the cool programs my current school does). Parents in West Portland became so angry about the prospect of their children being sent to “those schools” that they threw a monkey wrench in the whole process and the boundary review committee has now shifted their timeline to address their “concerns” immediately, while North and East Portland parents will have to wait until 2017 for as yet unproposed solutions for their struggling and under-resourced schools to go into effect. Let me explain. Part of what has me fired up right now is that Portland’s (and all of Oregon's) long and complex history with race, class and opportunity is largely being ignored in the debate about where kids should attend school, what kind of choices they should have, and the quality of those choices. We see this when looking at Oregon’s consistently middling performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), in addition to significant gaps between white students and students of color. We have a problem with chronic absenteeism that rivals most other states, and remain at the bottom of the pack with our high school graduation rate. With this fairly abysmal education picture, and Portland growing by about 1,000 new residents per month, you’d think the district would consider some strategies that go beyond shifting attendance boundaries or deconstructing K-8 schools. Perhaps the district could show a true commitment to reducing overcrowding and provide high-quality options for both communities? Instead it continues to listen and service the loudest, most politically powerful group and delay the concerns of parents in other parts of the city. Since the proposal was introduced, PPS has publicly stated it would focus on boundary changes in West Portland and table other recommendations—going so far as to cancel community meetings and declining invitations from parent groups on the East and North Sides. So, what are students and their parents on the East and North Side of the city supposed to do right now? Home to only 127 charter public schools statewide and a rather quiet network of charter supporters, Oregon doesn’t have a large charter school movement. The state does have a quasi-robust open-enrollment policy allowing inter-district transfer,  though PPS opts out of it. School-based programs for talented and gifted programs are basically non-existent. The city has seven focus-option programs (schools with focus programs are intended to be open lottery for all district students). Apparently PPS and its board still want zip code to be the sole determinant of where most students will spend their academic days and the quality of that day. So, I guess the answer for parents outside of West Portland is: Just wait, someone will get around to your schools, eventually. Unless the loud, politically powerful parents want something else to command our attention before then.

Iris Maria Chávez

Iris Maria Chávez is an education advocate and communications consultant, currently working with national and Oregon focused organizations to advance equity by supporting the creation of just policies, engaging with communities and supporting communications efforts that better communities in Oregon and across the nation. Iris Maria has lived in Portland for just over a year and came to the Pacific Northwest from Washington, D.C., where she worked for over a decade in education policy and advocacy for civil rights and advocacy organizations such as the Education Trust and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Iris Maria earned a BA in history, sociology and African diaspora studies from Tulane University in New Orleans and a MA in social policy from the University of Chicago, during which she also worked as a social worker in the Chicago Public Schools.

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