By DON McINTOSH
“You are in the fight of your lives,” National Education Association (NEA) President Rebecca Pringle told Portland teachers Nov. 1, Day 1 of their first-ever strike. It’s a fight that teachers say has been brewing a long time. Earlier that morning, about 4,000 teachers, school counselors, and librarians went on strike at Portland Public Schools (PPS), closing 81 schools and sending home 45,000 students.
Members of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) have been bargaining since January and working without a contract since July 1.
“We’re on strike so that every Portland public school student gets more resources, smaller classes, clean and safe buildings, the lessons and feedback that come from educators having more planning time, more special education teachers and supports, and more mental health specialists,” said PAT President Angela Bonilla to a crowd of thousands Nov. 1 outside Roosevelt High School.
PAT is calling its agenda “bargaining for the common good,” but the same strategy went by other names in previous negotiations, like “schools our students deserve.” The idea is to use union leverage to fight for things that will directly improve the quality of education. Teachers want the district to provide classrooms that are properly ventilated, free of rodents, and not too hot or cold. And above all, they want limits on class sizes: no more than 26 students in kindergarten, 28 in first grade, 29 in grades two to five, and a maximum teaching load of 165 students per teacher in middle school and 175 in high school.
Before this year, PPS and other districts could simply refuse to negotiate with teachers unions over class size, because under Oregon law, that was considered a “permissive” and not “mandatory” subject of bargaining. But Oregon lawmakers changed the law, and now districts must bargain over class size if teachers request that, at least for high-poverty “Title I” schools.
Teachers are also saying no to a district wage proposal that amounts to a wage cut in purchasing power terms. In their most recent two-year contract, which was extended for one year, teachers got annual across-the-board raises of 3%, 3%, and 4%. But inflation rose 15.5% in that time, meaning that teachers in one of the most expensive cities in the country suffered a 5% pay cut in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars. Under the current contract, annual pay starts at $57,080 for a teacher with a master’s degree and rises to $85,277 after 12 years. Instead of catching teachers up to where they were three years ago in purchasing power, the district’s proposal — 10.5% over three years — would lock in the loss. PAT was demanding 19.5% over three years when it went on strike, but has since lowered that to 19%.
Up until recently, PPS board members didn’t participate in the union contract negotiations, and the district’s team has been led by an outside attorney, Brian Hungerford.
In a written report, PAT calls the district’s finances “a manufactured crisis,” and says the district is sitting on nearly $100 million in reserves. PAT says PPS has added 149 central office staff while reducing the number of teachers and counselors by 121. In February, KOIN-TV pointed out that PPS’ communications department has 10 staff and a budget bigger than some of the district’s smaller schools.
Each school day since the strike began, teachers picket outside their schools, then attend a mass rally at a site somewhere in the city. In the strike’s second week, the targets got personal: Teachers and supporters marched and picketed outside the homes of volunteer school board members, and outside the Pearl District digs of PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero. But in a deeper sense, state legislators’ homes might be a more appropriate target.
That’s because the district has almost no ability to raise its own funds. It relies on state money appropriated by the Oregon Legislature, and some federal funds.
Oregon used to be like most other states where local schools were locally funded by local property taxes. But after voters passed measures in the 1990s limiting property taxes, the state stepped in to pool local property tax revenue, add revenue from other sources, and distribute funds back to school districts based on a fomula that’s supposed to equalize funding while accounting for uncontrollable cost factors that differ by district.
In 2000, voters passed a constitutional amendment commanding the legislature to fund schools adequately according to certain quality standards. Ever since, a Quality Education Commission has produced a report every two years estimating the budget needed for Oregon to achieve its official K-12 goals. Not once in two decades have Oregon lawmakers provided the adequate funding the constitutional amendment called for.
That may come as a surprise to Oregonians who remember the 2019 passage of the Student Success Act, which was forecast to bring in over $1 billion a year in additional revenue from a corporate tax dedicated to school funding. According to the Quality Education Commission’s 2022 report, the 2021 Legislature used some of that new funding to replace general fund dollars.
“Political will is always part of the equation,” said Northwest Oregon Labor Council secretary-treasure Laurie Wimmer, who spent decades as a lobbyist for the teachers union. “The ink was barely dry (on the Student Success Act) and there were Ways and Means legislators who already wanted to use that money to supplant the general fund dollars that went to operations.”
Oregon’s current two-year K-12 budget is 88% of what the Quality Education Commission said would be needed to satisfy the state’s own definition of adequate.
State legislators seemed to want to dodge responsibility for their failure to fund schools adequately in a Nov. 2 letter to PPS board members.
“We were surprised to hear accusations that the Oregon Legislature did not adequately fund schools this past legislative session,” said the letter, signed by 16 Portland-area Democrats. The letter said lawmakers had passed the budget that advocates had asked for, faulted PPS for spending 6% of its budget on administration, while comparable districts spend 2-3%, and called on Board members to get involved in bargaining.
NEA is backing its affiliate PAT to the hilt, and sent in dozens of national staff to help prepare. Oregon Education Association, PAT’s statewide parent organization, also brought in reps from around the state, and made it known that it will pick up the cost of strikers’ health insurance payments if the strike continues past December, so strikers won’t lose their health insurance once the district stops paying for it. This issue went to press Nov. 14, and the strike could be over by the time you read this, or it could go on for months. A strike settlement could extend the school year into June to make up for lost days, but that’s not automatic.