Willamette Week, Wednesday, March 27, 1996

Teach Your Children Well - Lunch Money Leading Indicator

  • Portland's school woes could send affluent residents to the suburbs

    By Matt Buckingham

    If you want a glimpse of what Portland will look like in 10 years, take a peek inside the local grade-school cafeteria. That's the advice of David Rusk, an independent urban planning consultant in Washington, D.C., who promotes the notion that modern cities are only as healthy as their schools.

    According to planners such as Rusk, Mayor Vera Katz's $9 million gift to Portland Public Schools might provide a needed quick fix, but a long-term funding solution is vital to both the district and the metropolitan area.

    Without such funding, they say, more affluent city residents will withdraw their children from the public schools and enroll them in private schools or, worse yet, move to the suburbs.

    "There's no question about it," says Rusk, the 55-year-old son of former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and author of the groundbreaking book Cities without Suburbs. "Decreased school funding will have that effect."

    Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., champions the idea that thriving American cities are still possible with strong regional planning, revenue sharing between taxing districts and high-quality public education.

    One of the earliest warning signs of a city in decline is a high concentration of low-income students in the central city school district, Rusk says. Such a situation, he says, is a sure signal that middle-class parents are sending their kids to private schools or moving to the suburbs. And the best place to detect such a troubling trend, he says, is in the lunchroom.

    If 40 to 60 percent of the children enrolled in an urban school district are eligible for federally subsidized lunches, or if that percentage has increased rapidly in recent years, Rusk says, "you've got a public school system in trouble."

    So far, Portland and its urban school district seem healthy, but that could change if Portlanders give up on their public schools, Rusk says.

    The percentage of Portland students receiving free and reduced-price lunches has been increasing slowly for the past five years and remains slightly below Rusk's early warning level of 40 percent (see graph this page).

    Meanwhile, enrollment in Portland Public Schools remains the highest of any urban school district in the nation, with 92 percent of children in the district attending the public schools. In cities with notoriously troublesome public schools, enrollment is much lower: In Cleveland, for example, only 79 percent of city families send their kids to public schools.

    If private school isn't an option, many parents simply move to the suburbs. In the Detroit region, for example, only about 20 percent of school-age children live inside the city limits. In Portland, the figure is nearly twice that.

    Urban flight spells trouble at city schools for a variety of reasons. For starters, most teachers will attest that middle-class, better-educated parents tend to be more active in school affairs. On a more practical note, when middle-class parents move to Beaverton, they take with them a chunk of the school district's tax base, and of the city's as well, Rusk says.

    Again, Portland's numbers look fairly good, at least for now. In the greater Portland area, 36 percent of residents live within the city, which includes 37 percent of the region's tax base. Compare that to Detroit, where 23 percent of the population lives within city limits, but only 7 percent of the metro region's tax base is found there.

    In other words, keeping up the public schools keeps up property values.

    Metro's director of growth management, John Fregonese, agrees that quality schools are an important component of controlling suburban sprawl, even though two-thirds of the city's residents don't have children in the public schools.

    "It's certainly an important part of the package," he says. "I've always been impressed that Portland Public Schools has so much enrollment as a percentage of population."

    That high enrollment is threatened, however, if Portland Public Schools revenue continues to decline as it has in recent years from $351 million in 1992 to a projected $304 million next year.

    "Two things would happen," Fregonese says. "It would undoubtedly drive families away to the suburbs, and private schools would flourish. They would skim the cream off the public schools. People who had money wouldn't care about the public schools anymore, and the cycle would continue."



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