Sunday, September 28, 2014

An Open Letter to Portland Public School Board on Boundary Review

Portland Public School Board Members,

I'm writing to urge you to complete the District Wide Boundary Review Process as soon as possible.  At [my neighborhood school] overcrowding is materially degrading educational quality and school leadership is not adequate to deal with the problem on its own.  Boundary Review offers immediate relief for enrollment disparities.  But it isn't enough.

Within PPS there are currently high reputation or "good" schools that are overcrowded, and low reputation or "bad" schools that suffer from under-enrollment.  Merely increasing the catchment area of "bad" schools and shrinking the catchment of "good" schools won't work in the long term.  The reputations still exist and families will react by finding a way to enroll in the "good" school such as by moving or maintaining an address in the new catchment area, or they'll switch to a charter school or out of PPS entirely.  I don't think you'll ever convince parents with means to go to a "bad" school.  Enrollment balancing in the long term requires addressing the reputations that make schools "good" or "bad" in the first place.

Reputation in my view is primarily a function of parents.  Reputation doesn't matter to kids, they don't care about financial hierarchy or relative privilege.  Nor are they in a position to make decisions based on reputation, they go where their parents send them.  It is parents who create and react to school reputation.  Breaking down the process that creates "good" schools and "bad" schools requires changing the way parents interact with schools. 

From my experience the two institutions that most involve parents are the PTA and Foundations.  Generally speaking, the former is a mechanism by which parents can improve their schools through donations of time and skills, the latter is a way to improve schools through donations of money.  Both resources materially impact the student experience, providing some factual basis for differences in reputation.  Disparity is reinforced psychologically; participants in parent groups commit to "their" school, they make sacrifices for "their" school.  People are proud of their sacrifices and attribute to them value and distinction, which contributes to a negative view of schools lacking that distinction.  And disparity is reinforced socially, because parents who are passionate enough about schools to make sacrifices on their behalf want to be with other parents similarly engaged.  Those dynamics create a positive feedback loop, particularly when applied to a backdrop of economic segregation in which some neighborhoods have much greater resources to donate to schools than others.  The end result is schools with disparate reputations, often wildly out of sync with the underlying reality.

I think the solution to this problem is to loosen the connection between parent organizations and specific schools.  Instead of silos defined by school, PTAs and Foundations should be organized over a wider area with a mission to promote the welfare of all schools within that area equally.  Dividing the district into four or five areas, each would be broad enough to incorporate an economically diverse population and to retain that diversity over the long term. 

Resources would be spread more evenly, rather than being concentrated in the neighborhoods where those with money or the ability to have a stay at home parent happen to live.  It would allow those who are passionate about schools to find community and support regardless of where they live.  And it would retain a degree of autonomy and local connection.  Parents wouldn't be donating to an anonymous, monolithic "PPS" but to the local area schools that that their children or friends of their children attended.  If boundary rebalancing were broken down by area, they would also be the schools parents' children might attend in the future as a result of enrollment balancing.  I think this would create a culture of investment in schools, directed not just where people with resources live but where investment is needed. 

With regards to boundary changes, it would make the switch to a different school far less intimidating.  The new school would be familiar and less likely to carry stigma.  At the same time there would be less social loss, parents would maintain connections with those at the old school through the broader parent organizations and have the same access to their resources.  Families subject to boundary change would be grounded and supported by community, instead of feeling like they're being voted off the island like they are now.

It could be argued that this approach is geared too much towards the subset of parents that are active in PTA and Foundations.  But I'd argue it is exactly that group that is most influential in determining school reputation.  They are the ones who care enough about educational quality to act on it.  They're the ones least likely to accept going to a "bad" school and who will not only pursue alternatives, but promote them to all their friends reinforcing disparities in reputation.  People seek community one way or another.

So in summary, please complete the boundary changes as quickly as possible.  But don't stop there, because it won't be enough.  Look at the dynamics that make rebalancing such a traumatic process and find ways to ameliorate them.  I think doing that will create a stronger, more equitable school system positioned to thrive rather than merely survive.  For the 21st century, Portland needs no less.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Consumer choices vs. Community choices

I came across this quote in Ravitch's book.  It's part of a discussion of school choice, but I think it applies to Oregon measure 90 as well.  Emphasis mine:
The market undermines traditional values and traditional ties;  it undermines morals, which rest on community consensus.  If there is no community consensus, then one person's sense of morals is as good as the next, and neither takes precedence.  This may be great for the entertainment industry, but it is not healthy for children, who need to grow up surrounded by the mores and values of their community.  As consumers, we should be free to choose.  As citizens, we should have connections to the place we live and be prepared to work together with our neighbors on common problems.  When neighbors have no common meeting ground, it is difficult for them to organize on behalf of their own self-interest and their community.
What is the top-two concept but an attack on political parties?  And what are political parties but the vehicle by which residents organize and collaborate for political activity?  I think parties are exactly the common ground Ravitch references above.  Without that common ground, we're just a bunch of individuals screaming in the wind.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Elected Officials are not Cheeseburgers

I think there are multiple reasons to dislike this Oregon's ballot Measure 90, which would create a top two primary.  It essentially discards our current system by doing away with primaries as we know them, moving the real election to May, and relegating November to a mandatory runoff.  It tosses out a century of work at opening party primaries, replacing them with an amorphous endorsement process whose value is unclear.  If current party primaries are bad because of limited participation, how much worse will an endorsement process be which has no rules or customs?  If most people don't vote in the pre-election now how many will vote in the pre-pre-election?  And for what?  To tread water on overall voter participation?

But I want to focus on one particular aspect of arguments for Measure 90, the idea that it increases competition and that this is unambiguously good. A recent Oregonian editorial was dedicated to the concept, and it's a common element in arguments for the measure.  But is it right?  Is an uncompetitive election necessarily bad?

We have good reason to take the idea for granted.  For most consumer decisions it holds true, having more choices allows a more specific decision that better aligns with our preferences.  The more restaurants that serve cheeseburger, the more likely it is that one of them serves the exact combination of product and price that you want.  But are elected officials like cheeseburgers?  Not really.
  • The decision to buy a cheeseburger is individual, one person makes the choice and immediately gets what they asked for.  Elections are a community decision.  Votes are cast by individuals, but they are cast for one office and only one individual wins.  In the end everyone will be served the same thing.
  • The timing of the decision to buy a cheeseburger is entirely at individual discretion.  One can buy cheeseburgers as often as one wants, it can be centennial or hourly or anywhere in between.  Elections are on fixed schedules and the decision generally lasts for a fixed term.
  • Cheeseburgers have a price constraint.  That constraint overrides any other preference, one cannot buy what one cannot afford.  The price constraint doesn't apply to voting, there is no cost to choosing one candidate over another.
Put those elements together and think about what a cheeseburger decision would look like if it had the same properties as an election.  Communities would decide by majority rule what cheeseburger everyone would have to eat, over a term of years.  They would have to make this decision without a cost constraint, so any topping, ingredient, style, or quality level would be allowed.

That would be a miserable decision even for just a married couple.  It would be miserable because in effect the only reason one couldn't get their "dream burger", one that matched exactly to what they wanted, would be the constraint of getting their spouse's agreement.  And the spouse would have the exact same problem.  Now expand the voting pool to an entire community and you can see why elections are contentious, even violent, things.  Unlike the individual's decision to buy a cheeseburger, I think communities need some structure to effectively reach a decision.  That's where parties and primaries come in.  They facilitate coalitions and compromises, they provide organization to what would otherwise be a war of all against all.

As an example of how this plays out consider approval ratings.  Who would you guess has higher ratings, an incumbent running unchallenged or a newly minted freshman who won a narrow victory?  Which election did the public feel better about, George W Bush's ultra-narrow victory in 2000 or the dominant wins by Reagan in 1980 or Obama in 2008?  The closer an election, the more competitive it is, the more people necessarily are unhappy with the outcome.

When measure 90 supporters uncritically support competition they are using the wrong model.  Elections aren't consumption decisions, elected officials aren't cheeseburgers.  An election is much more like a hiring decision, the community is hiring someone to do a job.  Competition isn't totally irrelevant to making a good hire, but it's significance depends on the circumstances:  is it an open position or already filled?  If the latter is the person competent?  Are they so incompetent that it warrants firing them in favor of an unknown?

Looking at it that way it's easy to see why many elected offices aren't always competitive, it's because voters are reasonably good at filling them.  What's wrong with that?