“Save our schools” is such a perennial Portland plea, few might remember the time when local kids’ educational horizons were actually pretty sunny. Zoom to the early 1970s, when city leaders blasted Portland out of its postwar urban funk of white flight and declining property values with a simple strategy: build the city for baby boomers.
With the 1972 Downtown Plan and 1980 Comprehensive Plan guiding public investment (and luring private bucks), a new Portland blossomed. The city’s thriving downtown, along with restored neighborhoods like Nob Hill, Irvington, and Buckman, attracted middle-class families like bears to honey. With parents firmly rooted in the city and their kids needing an education, Portland’s schools thrived. In the early ’80s, the Portland Public School Board boldly turned away from funding schools through special levies to implementing a permanent local property tax, thereby linking the future of Portland’s kids to the prosperity of a growing city.
The resulting school system was far from perfect (was Jefferson High School ever not in trouble?). But by the time I moved here in 1989, few things about Portland were more striking than its ubiquitous boast that the public schools were “the best in the nation.”
The blue skies clouded in 1990 with the passage of Ballot Measure 5, a statewide initiative that rolled back property taxes and ultimately shifted school budget decisions from local jurisdictions to the Oregon Legislature (and from the steadiness of property taxes to the fluctuation of income taxes). Two recessions further drained school budgets, and Portland’s liberal transfer policies have made things even worse, creating gross inequalities between schools. Yet, as Portland Monthly offers its annual assessment of the region’s schools, the sun may be peeking out again for the state’s largest school district.
Look around: Portland’s sidewalks are filled with the carriages of a new baby boom. The 20- and 30-somethings who’ve ?been migrating here for years are now procreating. For the first time in a decade, Portland Public Schools’ enrollment is up. But equally important, city leaders are once again attempting to link neighborhood revitalization and livability with schools. Turn to page 30 for writer Zach Dundas’s look at Portland Public Schools’ proposal to dissolve the transfer policy and build strong, generalist schools that will anchor every sector of the city.
If you’re inspired to roll up your sleeves and help, as so many did in the ’70s, go to portlandonline.com/portlandplan to get involved in developing the city’s blueprint for “20-minute neighborhoods,” in which the basic needs of life—principle among them, our kids’ education—can be enjoyed within a short walk from home.
None of the current initiatives guarantee the most critical ingredient: more stable school funding. But if the parents behind the new baby boom invest in their communities as the last generation did, we might at least have a beginning.