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School tactic is a bad precedent

The Lake Oswego School District’s recruitment of students from neighboring districts is unfortunately and unwisely testing educational boundaries in more ways than one. Not only is the district encouraging students to leap across jurisdictional boundaries to attend school in Lake Oswego, it also is straining relationships with other districts and ultimately could redefine what a public education means in Oregon. As reported Tuesday in the Portland Tribune, Lake Oswego school officials are trying to lure students by running ads depicting their district as a competitive and affordable alternative to private school. For $6,500 a year, families in Portland and other communities can send a child to Lake Oswego schools. That amount represents what Lake Oswego would otherwise receive in state and local funding for each student they teach, and it happens to be substantially less than what parents would pay for tuition at most private Portland-area schools. Lake Oswego adopted the unusual tactic because its enrollment is falling, which reduces the per-student revenue the district receives from the state. We don’t fault the Lake Oswego schools for seeking creative ways to address their enrollment and ensuing financial problems. But Lake Oswego is only one of many districts in the metro area with their own unique set of issues, and this student recruitment campaign just added one more problem. Decision is troubling While Lake Oswego and Portland are worried about falling enrollment, other suburban districts have the opposite concern. Whether enrollment is rising or falling, a district’s finances always will be an issue; the solution is to buck up and deal with it — not go looking for answers in your neighbor’s yard. It appears that Lake Oswego’s solicitations target students whose families already might be considering private school. But there’s no way of knowing if a student who leaves Portland for Lake Oswego would have opted for private school instead. So far, Lake Oswego has enrolled only 38 students through its tuition program. So the issue at this point is less a practical one than one of important educational and public policy. We believe the precedent being set by recruiting students is significantly out of step with the spirit of Oregon’s community-based public education. School districts already have established protocols for deciding whether to allow transfers between districts. What Lake Oswego is saying, in essence, is that those policies matter less than a family’s ability to pay. Public schools: free and equal Public education in Oregon is based on several key foundation policies. It is supposed to be free to every child. It is designed to be community-based. And it is supposed to be equitable across the state. If Lake Oswego wants to promote greater school choice, it should work with other districts and the Legislature to develop policies allowing any student to transfer easily among districts without regard to cost, their family’s wealth or the student’s community of residence. As it stands, we are left to wonder what exactly Lake Oswego is selling through its recruitment program. All school districts receive the same amount of money per student from the state, plus whatever limited additional funds they can raise locally. That means educational opportunities ought to be roughly the same throughout Oregon. Paying tuition at Lake Oswego doesn’t necessarily ensure a better education. From our viewpoint, a public education ought to be provided a student without a price tag attached and without recruitment involved.