Portland Schools Need More Than a New Superintendent

CascadeNewLogoBy John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland school superintendent Carole Smith announced her resignation this week after nine years on the job.

The next steps are predictable: The school board will conduct a national search for a successor and eventually sign someone to an expensive contract. After a short honeymoon, the new leader will sink into the bureaucratic quagmire and leave after a short and forgettable tenure.

Management experts know that if system results are disappointing, you need to change the system, not the people. The single most important change Portland could make would be to redesign how the money flows.

Right now, tax dollars go to school bureaucracies, regardless of results. Students are assigned to schools like widgets in a factory, and few families have a “Plan B” if they are unhappy.

A better option would be to enact Educational Savings Accounts (ESAs). This would allow every family to have their share of per-student revenue diverted from the bureaucracy to the student’s ESA, where alternative services could be purchased. Families would instantly have dozens of exciting options.

Equally important, ESAs would incentivize school administrators to make each school perform at a high level, thereby benefiting all students, including those not using ESAs.

Carole Smith made her share of mistakes, but the Portland school district needs institutional change more than it needs a charismatic new leader.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

  • Granola girl

    In the perfect world the suggestion would be great and would work. But, until we get rid of the teacher’s union there will never be a chance.

    • Conservatively Speaking

      Alas, too many have ignored FDR’s warning about public employee collective bargaining rights and the power they now command, absolutely.

      • Conservatively Speaking

        …too many minions… adversary, have ignored FDR’s warning….

  • Bob Clark

    I quite agree…it’s much more than Super Smith. PPS is too big and conflicted to operate most efficiently and produce admirable results. The North Clackamas School District superintendent made the remark at my neighbor hood association that he thinks there is a certain size in the 15k to 20k range where a district operates most effectively and efficiently. PPS is over twice this size.

    I think the PPS high schools should be split off into a community college type framework, like what seems to have successfully occurred with Jefferson Hi. Would note it is much less expensive, and more effective, to build and operate the box like light commercial buildings of community college campuses than remodel PPS’ old high schools. I am not even sure the remodeling does away with the lead problems in existing school buildings.

  • Connie Kosuda

    time to read up / Brown v. Board of Education / tax dollars are for PUBLIC EDUCATION / you want private, you pay out of pocket.

    you don’t get to take tax dollars for your own private purposes.