A recent opinion column by Portland City Councilor Tae Chong made some devastating charges about the racial and economic achievement gaps in the city’s schools and who he thinks is responsible.

Debate over Chong’s conclusions, which have implications in the upcoming City Council election, were sparked around the city, but it would be a mistake to consider this just a local story.

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong has sparked a debate with implications beyond Portland schools. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

While some people disagree with Chong on the reason why Portland Public Schools students of color and those from low-income families score below better-off white students on standardized tests, no one denies that these gaps exist, not just in Portland, but around the state as well.

Viewed outside the context of one local election, the achievement gap should be a front-burner issue statewide.

In his column, Chong argued that the achievement gaps were worse in Portland in comparison to other school districts.

Students from impoverished families, Black students and other minorities lag behind similar demographic groups in other districts on standardized tests, as well as better-off, white Portland Public Schools classmates.


Chong blames the city’s Board of Public Education, which has been led in recent years by members of the city’s progressive and Democratic Socialist activist groups. Members of those groups, including supporters of former school board chairs Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez, who are running to join Chong on the City Council, rejected his analysis of what drives the disparity.

Chong’s critics argue that Portland school officials are aware of the gaps and have focused on narrowing them. They say social forces outside school, such as insecure housing and insufficient food, have a big impact on what can be measured inside the school setting.

They are not wrong, but those answers are not sufficient. Public schools are supposed to create opportunity for students from many backgrounds – they are not supposed to reinforce inequality.

One of the most troubling points raised by Chong is one that should be explored in every school district in the state.

The District 3 city councilor pointed out that chronic absenteeism was six times higher for Black students than for white ones. Not only does chronic absenteeism predict dropout rates, but children who don’t come to school are not accessing school-based services, from nutrition to mental health assessments. Even though most of the Black students in Portland come from immigrant families in which English may not be spoken at home, Chong said the city’s schools haven’t invested in multilingual outreach and social workers.

Getting kids back to school should be a top issue for every school board and in every district. But it’s not an issue that we hear about at budget time because the families of the children who aren’t showing up don’t come to school board meetings to demand scarce resources.

It’s a fact that student performance in school is closely correlated to race and comparative wealth.

The question for superintendents, school boards and the people who want to serve on them should be: What do you plan to do about it?

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