Testimony to Portland School Board, April 16th, 2012

Good evening chair Gonzalez, members of the Board and Superintendent Smith. Again, I am Lew Frederick, State Representative for House District 43, which includes the North Portland schools identified for closure or major changes.


First some general comments:

I appreciate the bind that you are in. I know that the budget you get handed is the budget you have, and most of the so-called “innovation” that has often been invoked as the magical solution to everything has already been done or at least tried. I realize that you have lost authority over things you remain responsible for, leaving you holding the bag for decisions made elsewhere.

I believe you and I are on the same side of this issue and I refuse to address you any other way. Public Education is just about the best deal out there when it comes to maintaining our Democracy, our economy, our civilization. It is a good deal when we do it right. But when we cheap out on it, we get less of a good deal. I don’t expect any disagreement there.

And I hope you, as I do, see any degree of public involvement as a positive. My dearest hope, as a veteran of championing public education for decades and particularly through the evolving impact of tax limitation, is that the sleeping giant is finally awake. A serious and energetic rejection of the policies that willingly waste our children’s opportunities is the only thing that can save us. This ocean liner will not turn on a dime, but turn it must.

One of the weaknesses I think we have in how we plan is that we promote change without a comprehensive description of what we hope to achieve. We rarely, for example, talk about what is essential and must not be lost in the midst of change, and what is essential and must be regained, as well as what needs to change.

What will members of the current generation of schoolchildren be doing when they reach their twenties and thirties? Not just to earn a living, although that’s important, but how will they participate as citizens? How will they raise their own children? How will they process the information bombarding them in order to make decisions in our Democracy. Will they be literate enough in the skepticism and the urge to verify that characterizes science to avoid manipulation by junk science and snake oil salesmen? Will they be literate enough in math to avoid manipulation by bogus statistics? Will they be literate enough in history to appreciate lessons our society has already learned? Will they be able to follow a logical argument, and will they be able to make one? Will they have the capacity to appreciate the many wonderful things created by human minds, hearts and hands? Will the wisdom of the ages inform their lives?

These are some of the questions that trouble me.

I don’t think we can validly claim to be planning for outcomes if we are not asking these kinds of questions. We also cannot validly claim to plan for outcomes if we aren’t willing to create the inputs required to achieve them. And I believe those are the kinds of questions that cry out for public engagement. We are all tired of talking about what will be cut next. We still have dragons to slay, but let’s start talking about building some castles.

But I do have a message about the plans for Humboldt, Tubman and Boise-Eliot.

First, you can’t simply add up the budget realities of today to reach a conclusion about these schools. Whether or not you personally were on the Board at the time various decisions were made, whether or not you personally voted for any of them, you as a Board own the history that previous Boards shaped. And that history has resulted in a severe deficit of trust among these school communities.

It’s no secret why schools in North and Northeast Portland struggle with enrollment: Families suspect that whatever program is there now will be gone before their child completes it. Serial disruptions and turmoil are both the new and the old normal in these neighborhood schools. Some of the so-called “interventions” have been so poorly planned and implemented that they don’t even constitute valid experiments.

And meanwhile, voters in these neighborhoods have been consistent, reliable supporters, despite often feeling abandoned by the district. Charlie Brown and the football comes to mind.

You have a budget emergency. I get that. But here’s another emergency: There is not sufficient academic opportunity for students in the middle grades in my district. They do not need gimmicks. They need science labs, advanced math classes and the encouragement to take them; they need high expectations. All of these were present in Harriet Tubman Middle School, and the physical facilities are still there.

If yet another major disruption, excuse me, “reconfiguration”, is visited on these school communities that doesn’t include a plan for middle school opportunities on a par with West Sylvan or Jackson or Beaumont, then we will see this as just another round of more of the same. Frankly, I’d rather see that sleeping giant turn attention to the underlying issues, rather than fight you for the survival of our neighborhood schools.