Portland Public Schools’ proposal to spend $61 million to refurbish four primary schools would necessitate a bond issue that would be by far the largest in Portland’s history. It would necessitate a further increase in Portland property taxes, and it would occur in the context of an unremitting rise in education expenditures and a long-term decline in public school enrollments in Portland.

Even so, this major long-term commitment would meet only a small share of the $321 million in investment outlays that are proposed for Portland’s 17 public schools over the next 20 years, as outlined in the consultant study commissioned by Portland Public Schools.

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS

The proposal to borrow $61 million to upgrade four of our primary schools would reportedly bring those schools up to state-of-the-art standards, comparable to the East End and Ocean Avenue schools. The documentation provided in defense of this proposal leaves three critical questions unanswered: on priorities, sustainability and impact.

 Priorities: The proposed expenditure on four schools represents a small share of the proposed $321 million in capital expenditures on schools over the next 20 years. The proposal to concentrate this large effort on these four schools fails to address the question of why these expenditures are a priority, and whether a phased approach starting with the most critical needs for Portland’s schools might make more sense.

• Sustainability: Without situating the proposed school expenditures within a longer-term plan for addressing the other quarter-billion dollars of investment proposed for Portland’s schools over the next 20 years, there is little likelihood that this investment will be sustainable. The same parents testifying today in favor of these expenditures on our primary schools will be back in a few years to make similar demands for expenditures on their children’s middle and high schools.

Addressing even a fraction of the total investments proposed in the consultant study would require either significant property tax increases, a reduction in schools’ operating budgets – which means cutting teacher positions – or a miracle windfall in the city’s revenues.

 Impact: Amid all of the detail in the consultant’s report and other background documents on this proposal, there is no mention of the single most important question that should have been asked at the start of the effort: What difference would it make for student learning achievement? Do we really think that the proposed $61 million of bricks-and-mortar investments in four schools will yield that much value in terms of improved learning achievement for our students? The evidence suggests otherwise.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment is the richest, most detailed source of worldwide evidence on the impact of school-level factors on student learning achievement. These surveys and many others have found no consistent relationship between overall school expenditures and student learning achievement.

Greater school expenditures do not ensure better learning achievement. Some of the countries with the highest levels of expenditure per student and the smallest class sizes – including the United States – show middling to poor performance in student learning achievement compared to other countries. That is not to say that school expenditures do not matter, but that they are no panacea. They need to be used judiciously and targeted to areas where they are likely to make the greatest impact on school outcomes – that is to say, on student learning achievement.

A MORE REASONABLE PATH

A more rational alternative to the Board of Education’s proposal would be to start with investments to address specific health and safety needs, and needs for effective teaching and learning – like developing classroom space to eliminate the need to teach in hallways – and to address less urgent needs at later stages. These should be scaled to fit within what Portland taxpayers can afford, based on reasonable assumptions and projections of debt service obligations.

It is the City Council’s responsibility to put budget claims into context – among all of the other legitimate claims for city expenditures – and to prevent a rise in debt and taxes that would stifle the city’s prospects.

In the process, the council should set overall school expenditure limits that would create an incentive for the Board of Education to develop its own creative solutions for meeting Portland’s educational needs rather than making ever-larger claims for budget resources. Might this even involve revisiting the long-avoided question of school consolidation as a response to falling enrollments?