28 Jun

In Oregon or Greece, public pensions are the last line of defense

Last week, Oregon did not seem that far from Greece.

Not physically, of course; to get from Portland to Athens still takes hard flying of about 16 hours, or about what it would take to drive back and forth across the state. And not even financially; despite warnings, the fiscal problems of Oregon, or even the federal government, are as far from the economic shipwreck that is Greece as a speed bump from a land mine.

But if Oregon has a different financial statement, it has a similar bottom line: Government’s basic credibility is about pensions.

Last week, after months of fevered speculation about Europe foreclosing on Greece, or making it the first country to be expelled from using the euro – sending it back either to the drachma or a donkeys-for-bread barter economy – there was a hint of a deal with Greece’s northern European creditors. Greece promised to try to do a better job collecting taxes – another way it’s different from Oregon, which is actually pretty good at that – but resisted another demand, that it cut back on pensions it was paying retirees.

After the Greeks and the European Union announced a breakthrough early last week, pension cuts seemed to be the key element preventing a deal, the issue causing crowds march through Athens and stirring graffiti reading, “Free Greece from European prison.” Greece had already agreed to cut pensions to future retirees, but it was cuts to those already retired that were largely blocking a deal, raising questions of the future of the entire European Union.

Oregon knows the feeling, or at least the principle.

Ever since the Grand Bargain of the 2013 special session of the legislature – what looked like John Kitzhaber’s legacy, until something else turned out to be – Oregon had been tensely awaiting the state Supreme Court’s ruling on cutting cost-of-living benefits for current retirees.

Like Greece, Oregon had been here before, with previous pension cuts by the 2003 legislature, stirring an uproar that ended the political careers of some legislators who backed the changes. Some of the changes were upheld and some rejected by the state Supreme Court, an overall political and judicial experience that nobody in Oregon politics wanted to go through again.

But partly driven by the economic collapse of 2008 – which also had something to do with Greece’s problems – the 2013 Legislature tried another shot at pension costs, as part of an elaborate deal that included some additional tax revenue, not to mention limitations on local government regulation of genetically modified farming.

Without stirring the riots – and the fall of the government – set off in Greece, the changes were politically explosive. Union leadership immediately went to court, and even the Republican legislative leadership committees quietly funded campaign mailings against some legislative Democrats, charging they had violated pension promises.

This spring, the Oregon Supreme Court reached the same conclusion, ruling on the cuts in the cost-of-living formula, “These provisions have remained largely unchanged for 40 years. They were part of the compensation that public employees—many of whom are now retired — were promised in exchange for the work that they already have performed.”

Considering the legislative upheaval two years ago, the backlash to the decision seemed muted – which may have been partly because the real financial impacts won’t hit for two years.

But there’s a reason, besides the massive numbers, why pension issues are at the hurricane center of government money crises from Salonika to Salem. It’s not even about heart-tugging footage of grandparents, but about the value and credibility of government commitments and obligations.

Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on pension reductions passed by its state legislature, in a state with a financial situation that looks a lot more like Greece than Oregon’s outlook does. Like the Oregon Supreme Court, its decision was unanimous, and like the Oregon Supreme Court, the Illinois judges upheld the state obligations.

“The financial challenges facing state and local governments in Illinois are well known and significant,” declared the opinion.

“… Crisis is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law. It is a summons to defend it. How we respond is the measure of our commitment to the principles of justice we are sworn to uphold.”

No state is at risk of being banned from using the dollar, and not even Illinois has Greece’s record of fiscal shiftiness. But a government is supposed to mean what it says, and live with it.

That would be true even if court decisions were written in Greek.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/28/15.

28 Jun

Setting up a marijuana market, Oregon better provide some

The state of Oregon hasn’t quite worked out its new identity as a dope dealer.
So here’s a hint: It’s all about hooking your customers up.

Possessing marijuana becomes legal in Oregon at the start of next month. But the state won’t have its recreational retail outlets in operation until sometime next year.
And the legislature is uncertain about allowing its current legal sellers, medical marijuana dispensaries, to sell to recreational users until then.

Here’s a lesson from where the bud market meets business school: If you don’t supply customers, someone else will.

Reluctant legislators may be holding too closely to the model of the state-controlled liquor business. But if the state figures that Sunday night is a bad time to sell bourbon, it’s not like there’s a guy on the street corner to sell you a bottle of Jim Beam.

There is, of course, what you might call a thriving private market in marijuana. It’s not clear how successful the state will ever be in replacing that; after Washington state’s legalization, the Seattle private market seems as strong as ever, and state outlets seem to sell largely to tourists.

But if a state legalizes pot, it better be ready to sell some.

In a marijuana market, the key word isn’t marijuana; it’s market.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 6/27/15.

28 Jun

Opening day of another Portland no-baseball season

In late scores from the Pacific Coast League,

Las Vegas 6, Sacramento 3.

Tacoma 4, Colorado Springs 1.

Portland, nowhere.

Long after just about any other large or even medium-sized city, baseball season opens in Portland Tuesday.

Not actually in Portland, of course. We’re not that big a city.

But at least in what the feds call our Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, and baseball is all about statistics.

Tuesday, the Hillsboro Hops – representing both the metro area and the Metro area – open their home season against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. The only professional baseball team named after a plant used to make beer – unless someone discovers the Burlington Barleys – the Hops are likely to have a highly successful season, just like their previous two.

In both years since arriving from Yakima, the short-season Class A team – the lowest professional level, just above the Alaska summer league – drew more than 100,000 contented baseball consumers. They came to a stadium seating 4,710, offering Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and Oregon pinot noir (as well as its official beer, BridgePort Long Ball Ale), built by a city bond issue of $15.5 million.

Portland, of course, had no room for such a stadium.

Or any baseball stadium.

That’s how you get to be the largest city in the country without baseball at any level.
Portland was, of course, one of the founding cities of the AAA Pacific Coast League in 1903, and with a couple of brief interruptions, was in the league until 2010. (You can still see Portland Beavers caps around, often in taverns that still have Blitz signs.) The Beavers were then chased out of then-PGE Park for the Major League Soccer Timbers, with the pledge that the city would find someplace else for the Beavers to play. With the pledge abandoned, the Beavers are now the El Paso (Tex.) Chihuahuas.

After a century in Portland, the team has literally gone to the dogs.

Many of Portland’s former PCL colleagues – Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix – are now in the major leagues. If Portland were still in the PCL, it would be the largest metropolitan area represented.

Instead, we’re in Major League Soccer. Most MLS cities also have major league baseball, and the exceptions are illuminating.

Salt Lake City is similar to Portland – MLS team, NBA team – except much smaller. The last time the Beavers left Portland, in 1994, they became the Salt Lake Bees, who in 2014 drew 470,565. In another MLS city, the Columbus Clippers AAA baseball team drew 628,590, although everyone in Columbus spends summer waiting for Ohio State football to start,
(In Oregon, we wait for Ohio State football to finish.)

Orlando, like Portland, has the NBA and the MLS and no baseball at all – but it does have Disney World.

Think of that as the Pittsburgh Pirates of the Caribbean.

Then there’s the MLS city Montreal, which in 2005 lost its major league Expos to Washington, D.C. – with a feint toward Portland to try to raise the price – and has been trying to get back into the game ever since, with sold-out exhibition games with major-league teams.

“With a metropolitan area population of nearly 4 million people, Montreal is currently the largest North American city without a baseball franchise,” declares the website of the Montreal Baseball Project, led by former Expo Warren Cromartie, based on a study from Ernst & Young financed by the Montreal business community.

“Montreal Baseball Project seeks to build upon the recent groundswell of demand for baseball in Montreal and deliver a team back to the community.”

And that’s in a city where it’s illegal to speak English.

Or something like that.

Being Portland, our response has been more, well, measured.

“There continues to be conversations with the Oregon Sports Authority, with advocates, etc, and those conversations go back to the days when the City made a play for the Expos, and will continue until we do one day have a team here, if that ever happens,” recently explained Josh Alpert, Mayor Charlie Hales’ director of strategic initiatives.

“We engage in those conversations when they come to us because the mayor does believe in the power of sports to galvanize a community.”

Possibly Portland, in the midst of a national baseball attendance boom – and the impressive success of the Hillsboro Hops – is immune. Possibly we’re just waiting on a money man to appear, and the city would respond.

But meanwhile, we’re in another summer of being the biggest U.S. city without baseball.

And who’d ever expect to miss Chihuahuas?

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/21/15.

28 Jun

Its address isn’t where Jason Lee School is coming from

Through the bouncy castles and the water balloon slingshot, through the nine-year-olds tightly clutching stretches of food tickets, walked the two teen-age girls, one African American, one with hair a shade of blue that you suspected might not be natural.
Susan Kosmala was delighted to see them.

“Alumni,” the assistant principal of Jason Lee School observed happily. “Notice how many high school students are here.

“This is a community event, not a school event.”

What it was literally was the Jason Lee Carnival, out at Northeast 92nd and Halsey, in a part of Portland that can often seem as municipal afterthought. In this K-8 school’s community, deep-blue hair can seem the least diverse aspect; the school’s enrollment is a mix of Hispanic, black, Vietnamese and white, 30 percent English learners, 11 percent immigrant, including some recent refugees from Africa who might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder issues.

It’s a Title I school, a heavily low-income school, with all the accompanying problems of achievement levels and of trying to reach kids who might move to a different school next year.

But on this warm July evening, Jason Lee has drawn hundreds and hundreds of locals spread across its field and parking lot, with toddler care provided in the gym, a crowd with the demographic diversity of a census spreadsheet. To the PTA people who put it all together, it’s not just a school carnival, it’s a statement – a statement about determination in a challenging place.

“We’re about 80 percent free and reduced-price lunch,” says parent April Epperson, looking around at the crowd with satisfaction. “When you look at that, and look at this…”

The demographic requires other commitments. A Friday afternoon backpack program, assisted by City Bible Church, provides weekend food for 32 kids identified by teachers, and there’s a waiting list; for next year the school hopes to get to 40. Monday, a summer lunch program open to the community starts, to run to mid-August. At the end of that month, a back-to-school barbecue will issue each student a backpack of school supplies, provided by Moda.

Still, there’s a sense that downtown can be a long ways away.

“Portland is the city that works for the old trolley town,” says Michael Botter, who has two kids and a great deal of skin in Jason Lee. “The trolley tracks ended at 60th. East of 60th, the city doesn’t have any idea what to do with us.”

To Botter, it’s reflected in situations like Northeast 92nd, a sizable street where the sidewalks give out not very far along the walk home, a situation he calls “a death trap.
“Kudos for Commissioner (Steve) Novick, he came out here,” recalled Botter, “but he said, ‘Guys, I don’t have $7 million for you.’”

Len Reed, the first-year principal at Jason Lee, missed part of the carnival; it took her a while to dry out after 20 minutes in the dunk tank. Then again, it may have been no tougher than the time earlier this year when, to help move a food drive, she let students duct-tape her to a wall.

Coming back to the Northwest after teaching in Southern California, Reed’s image of Portland didn’t extend to the checkerboard ethnicity she’s found at Jason Lee. She sees it as one of the strengths of the place, along with the community connections that run out over the schoolyard boundaries.

It all creates a particular experience. There are certainly shortfalls she finds at Jason Lee – as an old K-5 school anointed to K-8 level, it’s still closer to K-5 levels in playground and library, and it’s short on arts support – but there are other elements.

“We focus not only on whether the kids are happy and willing to meet the challenge,” she says, “but on what we call grit.”

It’s an ingredient native to the neighborhood. And with its high degree of diversity, says her assistant principal Susan Kosmala, “Our kids are prepared to go out into the world the way it looks.”

Precisely at 7 p.m. on the evening of the carnival, coming through the entrance to the field is a 10-person marching drum corps – arranged through a friend of a friend – twirling sticks and banging skins with a stone-faced intensity suggesting it was marching not through a field next to an overcrowded K-8 but in the next day’s Grand Floral Parade. The drummers expressed all the spirit of the rest of the carnival, plus uniforms.

“You cross 82nd Avenue, and there’s a stereotype of this neighborhood,” said Kosmala.

“But that’s not the people who live here.”

Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/14/15.

28 Jun

Long-awaited limits on NSA surveillance have Oregon label

When Congress finally voted recently, after the kind of setbacks and roadblocks known only to video games and the U.S. Senate, to put some limits on what the government is entitled to know about its citizens, national media knew the poster boy: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

It helps to be running for president.

The stories could easily have been about Ted Cruz.

But as Congress finally declared that the government couldn’t keep records on whom you telephoned, when and for how long – “bulk collection” – while insisting that its justification is none of your business, the moving force seemed less a Louisville slugger than something made in Oregon.

With a little help from a National Security Agency leaker who now hangs out in Moscow.

Both Oregon senators, more than the representatives of any other state, have actively challenged the government’s insistence that it’s entitled to know whatever it wants, and that citizens really don’t need to know anything about it. Sen. Ron Wyden, for more than a decade, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, since his arrival in the Senate in 2009, have been waging an outnumbered struggle against practices they often couldn’t even publicly describe.

“In December 2012, I put forth a ‘No Secret Law’ proviso,” objecting to broad but classified rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, recalls Merkley. “I couldn’t explain why, because (the extent of government surveillance) had not yet been revealed by Snowden.” Wyden, from his legally constrained position on the Senate intelligence committee, could only keep warning that when the truth came out, “I think the American people are going to be profoundly disturbed.”

Or at least, some congressmen might be.

Remembered Wyden last week, “When we started, when there were just a handful of us going up against surveillance and secret hearings, it was hard.”

Then, with the aid of massive revelations by Edward Snowden, profound disturbance among many congressional Republicans – including former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, who largely wrote the Patriot Act – and a Court of Appeals decision that the government’s surveillance practices were illegal, the House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act, dealing with some concerns expressed by both Wyden and Merkley.

Standing against the new bill was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wanted to renew the Patriot Act intact. As Merkley points out, that might also have cancelled the Court of Appeals ruling, by declaring that it was indeed “the intent of Congress to authorize bulk collection.”

Without a clear statement on that, the government had been relying on secret opinions and interpretations from the Foreign Intellligence Surveillance court, which the senators knew about but couldn’t challenge – or even mention – publicly. The “secret law” process had been a longtime concern of both Wyden and Merkley.

But when the new law’s supporters finally forced McConnell to allow the Senate to vote – and it passed overwhelmingly – it changed the situation
.
“The USA Freedom Act,” notes Merkley, “now requires declassification of a FISA opinion that will make a significant reinterpretation of the rule of law, or a declassified summary.”

So we might even know what our government thinks it can do.

And instead of the court hearing only from the Justice Department – national security, you know – some outside voices will be allowed to submit arguments.

Moreover, government bulk collection of telephone metadata – who called who, when and for how long – is to stop. The phone companies, not the government, will hold the data, and if the government wants something in particular, it can get a warrant.

“From the standpoint of privacy,” said Wyden, “this is the most significant privacy reform in a decade,” which is about how long he’s been fighting bulk collection.

Still, the focus of the issue’s coverage was on Rand Paul, especially his 11-hour filibuster on the issue – which did mean that Paul drew all the accusations of leaving the country defenseless by any weakening of what the government had been casually accustomed to do.

Media also focused on several additional amendments on government practices that McConnell prevented Paul from offering – although, as Wyden noted, “I was the co-sponsor of almost all of them.”

The further reform agenda includes attacking the “backdoor search loophole,” allowing the government, without warrant, to look through the emails and communications of Americans if agents think the search could produce information on suspicious foreigners overseas.

That issue will likely emerge in 2017, when the FISA Act needs renewal, when the Oregon senators will be watching.

And when, one way or another, the 2016 presidential campaign will be over.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 6/10/15.
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07 Jun

Blue Dog Schrader for Clinton — along with differently toned Dems

As the national political world has been buzzing to itself on the daily scandal stories about Hillary Clinton, Kurt Schrader has not been impressed.

“I think it’s an indication of desperation,” commented the congressman from Canby last week, “that the worst thing they can say about her is that she used the wrong email account.
“I don’t think the American people are tuned into that.”

Even with heavy voting by Information Technology departments.

If that’s the worst thing anyone can say about Hillary Clinton, the best thing that Schrader can say about her is that she should be the next president. Schrader was the first member of the Oregon congressional delegation to endorse in next year’s race, and he has particular reasons for his choice.

“I definitely think that Hillary could help unite the country, with the Democratic Party moving to the middle,” says Schrader, one of Congress’s few surviving moderate Blue Dog Democrats.

“The middle is wide open right now.”

To Schrader, that’s largely because the Republican presidential hopefuls, arranged in rows, are in a headlong race to the right, many of them abandoning even previously held positions such as support for Common Cause testing. But it’s also because he thinks Clinton could recapture for his party “a lot of the traditional base of what I would call the lunch-bucket Democrats.”

Her appeal, Schrader argues, would be a correction to recent Democratic messages – which he considers “anti-business, about taking things away from people to give them to other people” – a posture that he thinks led to the party disaster of 2014.

By contrast, Schrader sees Clinton as bringing the strengths of her primary campaign in 2008, “when regular men and women came flocking to her banner.” Since then, he thinks she’s done “a very good job as secretary of state,” giving her experience that no other candidate in either party has.

But it’s not that Schrader sees Clinton as the candidate of his particular wing of the party. “She is the one candidate Democrats have that can unite the party,” he says. “She’ll have the Blue Dogs, the progressives, Hispanics and people from the CBC,” the Congressional Black Caucus.

For a Democratic Party that often subdivides like a housing developer, it seems a sweeping claim. But the congressional figures who have joined Schrader in endorsing Clinton this early in the race – close to half the party’s membership in Congress – do indeed cut across the party’s existing divisions.

Besides Schrader’s fellow Blue Dog chairman, Jim Cooper of Tennessee, Clinton has the support of numerous members of the House Progressive Caucus, although its chairmen have held off. Co-chair Raul Grijalva of Arizona has said that he would be happy to support her, but his office says it’s not an official endorsement.
Clinton has been endorsed by Hispanic House members and at least 10 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Last week, the National Journal reported that more than 100 congressional Democrats have endorsed Clinton, far beyond her position at this point in the 2008 campaign.
Regionally, although Schrader is the only Oregon in Congress to make an endorsement, Clinton has been backed by four House members from Washington, led by Jim McDermott of Seattle, who is also active in the Progressive Caucus. She’s also been endorsed by both senators from Washington, as well as both senators from California, part of her support from Democratic women senators, who all signed a letter urging her to run.

Oregon’s senators seem unlikely to join them, or Schrader, in endorsing soon. “I don’t think now is the time for a formal endorsement, but I’m supportive of Hillary Clinton,” explained Ron Wyden last week.

“At this point, (Clinton) has not been willing to address some big issues,” such as inequality, money in politics and global trade, said Sen. Jeff Merkley more pointedly. “Until I hear on those, I won’t be endorsing anyone.”

To Schrader, coming from a swing district and a different place in the party than Merkley, Clinton’s position has a different appeal. “Compared to Hillary Clinton 25 years ago,” he thinks, “she’s grown up and moderated.”

Looking to 2016, Schrader sees another point of particular interest to his mid-Willamette Valley 5th district.

“Republicans are continuing to slap Hispanic voters in the face,” says Schrader. “I don’t see how they have a chance.”

Besides a wide range of official congressional support, extending from Blue Dogs to the Progressive Caucus to most Democratic senators, Hillary Clinton has another clear advantage:

No Democrat in Congress has endorsed anybody else.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/7/15.

04 Jun

Oregon is fertile, but not a great place to grow kids

At the rate we’re going in Oregon, the term “children in poverty” could soon be a redundancy.

Oregon now has a child poverty rate of 24 percent, with more than 52 percent of schoolkids qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, both rates higher than before the recession and above the national average. According to the Kids Count data book, Oregon has declined from the top half of states for kids to 30th.

And according to economist John Tapogna of ECONorthwest, the reality is worse than those numbers. The poverty number is a snapshot of a moment; experience over the course of a childhood shows something else.

By the time Oregon children reach their first birthday, says Tapogna, 43 percent of them will receive some form of public assistance. By their 13th birthday, the percentage reaches two-thirds. The situation contributes to, and isn’t helped by, Oregon having one of the lowest high-school completion rates in the country.

In fact, says Tapogna, the situation is a “death spiral.”

Or as Duncan Wyse, executive director of the Oregon Business Council, puts it, “If we don’t figure out a way to change the whole cycle, we’ll never affect child poverty.”

Figuring that out is a current theme of the OBC, which is seeking both short-term strategies and long-term answers. There’s a Design Lab to look at poverty issues, grants for pilot projects to raise graduation rates in Ontario, Medford and Portland, and an effort at the legislature to try to change some things at the other end of childhood. The OBC has taken a particular interest in several measures in Salem that could make some progress on child poverty: bolstering the state’s Employment Related Day Care program (helping a parent work helps a kid considerably), strengthening the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, and giving some more heft to the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, supplementing the wages of some low-income workers.

It wouldn’t be a pass to Toys-R-Us, but the package could do something for kids.

“I’ve been impressed by the business council’s focus on poverty,” said House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, Monday. In a session battered by a considerable kicker obligation, and wide demands to increase the K-12 budget, she sees a prospect of movement on a couple of the OBC goals.

Kotek hopes the session could add about $40 million to Employment Related Day Care, including allowing support to diminish gradually instead of just shutting off at a certain (not very high) income level. “Without day care,” points out Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of the Oregon Hunger Task Force, “it’s pretty hard to work in low-wage jobs and work your way up.”

Supporters also look for some help for TANF, especially giving some support to families approaching the federally mandated 60-month cutoff, or providing some short-term assistance to let earners get or stay employed. Strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit program will be tougher, because tax credit money is tight and needs to be found somewhere else, but there’s a chance of streamlining and simplifying the effort.

“If we get TANF and ERDC,” said Kotek, “it will be a good session for low-income families.”
Another low-income priority, increasing the Oregon minimum wage, arrived in January with a head of steam but seems to losing it as the year runs down. Kotek says it’s “definitely a late-session conversation,” while conceding there’s not that much session left. The subject might reappear in next year’s short session, or line up for space on what already looks like such a crowded 2016 ballot that Hillary Clinton might have to squeeze in.

But Whitney-Wise agrees with Kotek’s estimate of the effect of strengthening TANF and ERDC.
“If we can get both of those things substantially funded, we’ll really have made a dent,” she says. “I really appreciate the business community stepping up on this.”

That move comes from the conclusion, really not requiring sophisticated macroeconomic analysis, that having a quarter of your kids living in poverty at any one time – and most Oregon youngsters experiencing it at some point – is really not a great investment. It’s unlikely to pay off in your workforce, or in free-spending customers.

“What is the cost to the state of that level of poverty?” asks Gregg Kantor, CEO of Northwest Natural. “The weights just stack up so high that it’s a weight on our future.”
This explains part of the Oregon Business Council’s concern about Oregon’s child poverty:
It’s really not good for business.

And as it happens, it’s also not good for kids.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 6/3/15.

01 Jun

In Chinese immersion, inner city kids successfully afloat

First graders, having recently escaped from Sesame Street, spend a lot of time working on shapes and colors. So last week In inner Northeast Portland’s King School, 10 first graders were working, with intense concentration, to puzzle out the differences between a triangle, a circle and a square.

Except everything they’re saying, and everything written on the wide sheets of paper in front of the class, is in Chinese.

Nobody ever got to that stretch of Sesame Street.

This Wednesday’s Junior Rose Parade will feature a new entry: several dozen inner city kindergartners and first graders who are immersed in Chinese. It’s the first year of the King program, and the first time anything quite like it has surfaced in this neighborhood.

As parade entries go, it beats a clown car.

Portland Public Schools already had one Chinese immersion program, at Southeast Portland’s Woodstock School, with a sizable Asian student population. The King school program was spurred by a Chinese language program at nearby Albina Head Start, with teachers from the Chinese government’s Confucius Institute. Ron Herndon, head of Albina Head Start, pushed hard for an elementary school Chinese immersion program for AHS alumni.

The King program now has spaces designated for the Head Start kids, and also for kids from the King neighborhood, an approach that Michael Bacon, the PPS assistant director for dual language immersion, calls “trying to create a program reflective of the community that’s here.” As a result, the student roster looks a little different from similar programs; the largest group is African American, with about a sixth Hispanic. Immersion’s goal is to produce bilingual students, but King staffers point out that lots of students there are trilingual – speaking Chinese in the program, English elsewhere in school, Spanish to their parents.

Jessica Bucknam taught Chinese in two Portland schools for 14 years before coming to King. She trained as a high school teacher in China before coming to the United States to get married; she grins, “I came here for freedom and love.” She says the goal for this year was to teach the students 100 Chinese characters, but the count so far is 149. “They’re doing well,” she says of her students, “because they’re so excited.”

You could understand the excitement of parents, noticing world trade patterns, at their children learning Chinese. But what about first graders themselves, not typically known for thinking geostrategically?

Bucknam quotes one as calculating, “Not a lot of people in America know about Chinese culture. I could be the one to tell them about it.”

Or as Bucknam explains Chinese immersion, “It’s the 21st century. We’ve got to do it.”
There’s also another attitude, more common to six-year-olds. “They’re bragging about being trilingual or bilingual,” reports King principal Eryn Berg, “and well they should.”

With a momentum possibly driven partly by kindergarten street cred, King has 63 applications for 48 spaces in the Chinese program for next September. “Ronnie’s group has done a great job in promoting the program from their end,” says Bacon. “It’s been a win for us.“

For his part, Herndon, who has not been entirely uncritical of PPS over the past four decades, says, “Michael and his staff… kept every commitment they made to ensure the Mandarin Immersion program was established.”

Now, King has two Chinese kindergartens and two first grades, each doing half a day in Chinese and half in English, with the two halves blending into each other; teacher Alex Montfort says there’s a usefulness to math in Mandarin, where 20 translates as “two tens.”

The approach has also worked well for King, part of a strategy – along with a jazz band that’s also marching in the Junior Rose Parade Wednesday – that’s raised enrollment from a merger-candidate-level 190 to a robust 400.

Language immersion is a growing element in Portland Public Schools, with 26 programs featuring five languages across 15 schools, enrolling 4,500 students – close to 10 percent of the system’s entire population. The system is looking to launch three new programs – one more in Chinese, probably in outer Southeast, another Spanish immersion program and a new one in Vietnamese.

“Starting a new program is really bumpy,” says King principal Berg, sounding as though she’s still excited from the beginning of the immersion program.

“Then one day, about four months in, I walked into a kindergarten class and stood there for 20 minutes watching kindergartners speaking Chinese, and the hair rose up on my arms.”

At that point, she decided the program would work.

It seems worth a parade.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 5/31/15.