Monthly Archives: February 2014

Portland Public Schools Strike

The teachers of the Portland Public Schools prepare to strike on February 20th in a labor dispute that will affect about 48,000 students.  All schools will be closed during this localized government shutdown, reminding us that not only are labor unions no friend of liberty, they are no friend to our children’s education.

2/20 Update: A compromise was reached, and the strike didn’t happen.

I don’t have children in the PPS school district, but this does affect me directly because this is my community of neighbors and friends. Because there are few school choice options, many families are affected. While the district and the teachers try to figure out a collective compromise on their disputes over pay, workloads, and health insurance, an entire community of parents is trying to figure out what to do with their children. The implications will trickle down to each parents inability to go to their own job, and this leads to an overall weakened economy as we scramble to right a sinking ship rather than do our own jobs and help make the world turn.

At the recent strike vote, at least one teacher stood amidst a swirling storm of yes votes to admit that the strike is wrong and the school is failing the children by walking out. But there are too few who risk voicing such an opinion, so nothing changes and the union rolls on, crushing those who don’t grasp its mandate.

Unions are fueled by fear and peer pressure. A majority is formed that endangers the rights of the minority. Threats are common, and of course there is a lot of yelling and large painted signs waving along a picket line. Everyone is warned not to cross the picket line. I think there is a lot of hate in that place, and this isn’t something our children need.

Some teachers have said they would not cross the picket line for fear of their jobs. Others say they’re here for the children, not for disagreement. Now we all feel like we have to choose sides, since we’re all affected. But apparently other teachers can and will be hired on a temporary basis, so sending your child to school (and crossing a picket line) is an actual option. A problem with unions is that there is always someone who is willing to do the work but that individual is not allowed to voluntarily associate in a different way than the mandate of the majority.

Higher wages at the expense of fewer jobs. An us vs. them mentality that marginalizes non-members and stifles overall creativity and growth. This is what you can expect while a small group benefits from the influence of the labor union, and a much larger group (the entire remainder of the community) is worse off because of it. So using their own math against them, it is actually the majority of society that is worse off at the expense of the minority.

Meanwhile, a shining light. Voluntary associations are stepping in. Local community members and church groups are offering resources to help parents and children. Some buildings are providing space for childcare and people are organizing activities for children so that parents go to their jobs. These individuals are coming together as a community to do what they need to do to get on with their lives and step around the cumbersome constricts of organized labor.

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School Choice

I was asked to review the book School Choice: The Findings by Herbert J. Walberg (2007), which compares the status quo traditional public school system alongside a few alternatives. Though not specifically addressing programs in the state of Oregon nor the Montessori educational approach (topics of personal and community interest), nor saying much about homeschooling (another relevant topic of interest), this book organizes a clear framework for considering potential educational options.

This is a statistics-heavy research-based publication. Parents and students who are able to make a school choice and attend a school other than the default public school in their district are found to be more satisfied with their educational experience. When schooling is detached from random housing boundaries, the results are positive. Consistently, students do as well or better than their peers who are in the nearby government-funded and government-run schools.

In reviewing charter schools (see below), voucher programs (publicly funded scholarships to private schools), and private schools (privately funded and run), the book does not necessarily advocate a singular path away from traditional public school but rather emphasizes choice and the positive effects of available alternatives. All three of these options must be chosen, they cannot fall into the lap of the parent. And each of the three must be given as an available option in order for the choice to be made. Choosing families and non-choosing families in the community are most commonly affected with a positive outcome by the choices the choosers are able to make.

It is suggested that most parents with students in public school do not choose for their children to be there – they just ended up there by default. Either the parents want an alternative to traditional public school and are unable to obtain it, or they simply accept the situation as it is, often with reservations. I don’t think this can be true for everyone, but the research shows it is typical that most parents dislike (to one degree or another) something significant about their public school.

As one of the three options presented by Walberg, Charter Schools are explained as having the benefits of wider accessibility due to their funding source by the state (similar to a public school), and as having the greater economic efficiency and improved academics possible through non-centralized, independent leadership (as often found in private schools). A compromise between extremes, charter schools are popular and they generally accept (by random lottery) only a fraction of those interested. Research shows that enrolled students do well and the charter school raises the local standard of excellence in the community by influencing neighboring public schools to make positive competitive changes.

That charter schools are only a compromise rather than something totally different from a traditional public school is observable from by the following. They are often over-regulated, a quality they were most often founded to avoid, and they receive lower funding than public schools, though funded from the same source. Funding varies widely from state to state and can lag significantly behind the local neighboring public schools. However, as with private schools, charter schools have shown they can do more with less.

Walberg finishes by discussing the positive benefits of competition resulting from school choice and the importance of parental satisfaction with school choice. Hopefully we are moving towards increased freedom of choice, allowing parents to step outside the rigid boundaries of the status quo to make individual decisions about the quality education each wants for their children. In order to do so, it is important that a great many options are made available, in order to make a choice.

Spare Room Hotel

The virtual hotel Airbnb is a website that lists rooms for rent all over the world. You can rent out your room to a stranger for a couple nights to make some cash. If you like meeting new people and you don’t have personal space issues, you can find a similar setup during your own travels.

However, the state of New York Attorney General is trying to shut down short-term room rentals because some are upset at the lost hotel tax revenue which cannot be collected from these low-cost and low-ammenity “hotel rooms.” But the city of Portland, Oregon is taking a different approach. Rather than strike down the movement to save the status quo, they would set up a framework to support the new “shared economy,” essentially creating a path to legality for the creative businesses that already exist.

The Oregonian reports that the city is looking to establish appropriate taxes and permitting requirements to allow homeowner occupied residences to operate as part-time hotels on the real market rather than a black market.

Most of the angst in New York and elsewhere seems to be with the short-term rental of apartments rather than single family homes, or with those who rent rooms in houses where they do not themselves live. Rules against subletting are fairly common for any kind of rental and homeowners associations and property management companies frequently decide for themselves that they don’t want to participate in this sort of thing.

But any homeowner should have the right to invite whomever he wishes into his own home, even to stay awhile – and why not charge those who are willing to pay? Yes, I know we have the neighbors to consider, so I’m not about to suppose a regulatory desert. But New York is going about it all wrong. Their opposition to sharing is driving up costs and challenging innovation.

Portland, with it’s increasing love for really tiny living spaces, has shown that it also has an affinity for really tiny hotels, (and really tiny food carts). If your spare room is just collecting dust, start collecting dollars instead.

Fearless Flyby

Not long ago, the Portland Development Commission threw a big bag of money in the air and hit Trader Joe’s in the back of the head. Now the once-sought-after national grocer has laid that bag of ill-invested coins on a vacant lot in Northeast Portland and has decided to walk away from the fuss and the negative vibe. Hopefully without a bump on the head.

It’s not as if the bag of money wasn’t big enough. As mentioned in an earlier post, the PDC wanted to roll a few million dollars in front of Trader Joe’s to tempt them with the empty corner of NE Martin Luther King Blvd. and Alberta Street – hoping the lot could be paved with specialty grocer gold. At the time, the potential tenant remained a “mystery.”  A cloak and dagger scheme at best.

The neighborhood spoke out and said they didn’t want the City to throw their money away.

And Trader Joe’s chose to live in the light, and this week said in a statement that, “if a neighborhood does not want a Trader Joe’s, we understand, and we won’t open the store in question.” They are wisely looking at the long-term effects of their investments.

You can’t give away something that no one wants. But we all love Trader Joe’s, which goes to show that you can’t even give away something everyone does want, if you’re going to throw big bags of someone else’s money around. It might bruise us all.

Now we can buy our chocolate covered pretzels.