Portland city councilor: Schools, ‘white-led progressive groups’ ignore academic gap for students of color

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A Portland city councilor has ramped up his criticism of progressive groups, claiming they ignore a growing school achievement gap between white students and students of color.

On Sept. 22, Chong posted a lengthy Facebook post critical of the “Progressive School Board” and “local Progressive groups like Equity for Portland, Progressive Portland, and the Portland Democratic Socialists” for not prioritizing the academic racial gap in Portland, which he said is almost double the state average.

Portland City Councilor Tae Chong is “done with white-led progressive groups.”

“Portland Public Schools is broken for students in poverty and for black and brown students,” Chong said. “The Progressive School Leaders in the last five years have made this problem worse. They created the worst, most expensive academic gap for black students and students in poverty in Maine.”

Citing a recent presentation to the School Board by Superintendent of Schools Xavier Botana, Chong said Portland has one of the best school systems in Maine for white students, who score 10 percent higher than average on standardized tests than white students throughout the state.

But the same cannot be said for Black students, he said, who score 10 percent lower, “meaning other schools with large black populations like South Portland, Westbrook, Biddeford, Saco, Bangor, Lewiston, and Auburn do a better (job) educating their black kids than we do.”

In a statement to the Phoenix, Botana responded that Chong cited data the School Department has been using for five years to highlight disparities and explain why it is focused on equity. 

“Eliminating the huge opportunity gaps between our economically disadvantaged students (who include students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities) and our more advantaged students in Portland (who tend to be white) has been the driving focus during my time in Portland,” Botana said. “Our work has included getting historic equity budgets overwhelmingly approved by Portland voters and creating cutting-edge policies to root out racism from our schools and push toward equity.”

Botana said addressing systemic inequities “doesn’t happen overnight” and the schools must be transparent about the work that remains.

“Unfortunately, Councilor Chong’s piece contains inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of our work,” the school chief said.

Chong also said there is a large education gap for students in poverty, which has a significantly greater impact on communities of color.

“Guess where systemic and institutional racism comes from? Pipelines that create poverty for people of color but a good system for white students,” he said.

Chong said “Progressive School Leaders” are responsible for 85 percent of all property tax increases in Portland, which “pushed rents that were already too high ever higher and those (who) could least afford it bore the brunt – black and brown people in poverty. Where is the Equity in that? Where is the Progressiveness in this? Where is the Socialism in this?”

School Board Chair Emily Figdor responded to Chong’s claims with her own Facebook post, saying eliminating that opportunity gap has been a “driving focus” of the School Board and Botana for the 2 1/2 years she has been on the board. 

“And while changing kids’ experiences and lives never happens fast enough – not even close – we’ve passed historic equity budgets and a raft of cutting-edge policies to root out racism from our schools and push toward equity,” Figdor said.

She said the School Department’s strategic plan has equity as a guiding principle. 

“No, it’s not enough,” Figdor said. “No, we’re not satisfied. But, hell yes, we’re focused on it.”

Chong took aim at several progressive social and political groups.

He said Equity for Portland Schools, Progressive Portland, and the Portland Democratic Socialists of America have been “silent about the most expensive worst academic gap for black students and students in poverty.” He also said organizers of Black POWER, formerly Black Lives Matter Portland, have ignored the problem.

“I said their demands were whitewashed because in my 30 years of equity work, I have never seen an equity group never look at school reform,” he said. “I don’t blame them because they are young and don’t know their history; I blame the white-led Progressive groups who distract and misinform people of color on what the equity priorities are in Portland.”

John Thibodeau, a representative of Equity in Portland Schools, said his organization responded on Facebook, calling Chong’s “inaccurate attack” both “unfortunate and unproductive.”

Thibodeau said closing the opportunity gap – along with increasing the number of Black and Brown teachers and staff and electing Black and Brown leaders dedicated to anti-racism and equity work to the School Board, City Council, and Charter Commission – is a mission of the volunteer organization. He also praised the work Botana and the School Board have done, especially in moving the budget toward addressing the opportunity gap. 

“We’re disappointed by Councilor Chong’s accusations and public attack,” Thibodeau said. “We hope he reconsiders such communications in the future. We’re always open to talk personally and directly about critical issues, and welcome collaboration in the future.”

Representatives from Progressive Portland and the Maine Democratic Socialists for America did not respond to requests for comment.

Chong wrote that “Progressive School Committee members spent more time debating whether Portland School Employees who were exempted from hazard pay should get paid than addressing 900 kids of color who weren’t coming to school, and they spend almost $200,000 for hazard pay but nothing for bi-lingual outreach workers or bi-lingual social workers.”

Botana said those claims are incorrect; he said three such social workers have been hired, pay has been increased and the work of multilingual family outreach specialists has been professionalized.

“It appears that Councilor Chong believes that hazard pay for frontline workers, raising taxes to support our students, and the decision, strongly supported by Portland voters in 2017, to renovate our elementary schools to bring them up to 21st-century learning standards are the wrong things to do,” Botana said. “Beyond that, he does not offer anything specific for what he believes we should do. We invite him to work collaboratively with us to share his ideas on how best to achieve the goal we all have in common: achieving equity for all students at the Portland Public Schools.”

Chong, meanwhile, wrote that he is “done with white-led progressive groups. They have failed black and brown people and students in poverty miserably. As a person of color, I am so upset with their obsession to create a perfect politically correct community they neglect the fundamental issues like addressing poverty, housing, mental health, and the academic gap for people in poverty and people of color especially in our school systems. Don’t get me started on the citizen’s initiatives impact green building and increase inclusionary zones has on our affordable housing. What a catastrophe.”

This wasn’t the first time Chong has aimed at Portland progressives. He previously claimed People First Portland was ignorant about racism against Asian Americans.