PPS teacher strike: a difficult ballet



When I was a young teacher’s union lobbyist, a man who became a mentor shared a not-so-secret secret.  My friend founded the organization representing school administrators, and part of his job was to impart management-side bargaining techniques to new principals and superintendents.

“We always say we have less money than we do as first position,” he told me.

In the dance that is negotiation, both sides stake out their outlier boundaries and work inward to reach consensus. At least, that’s how it works when it works. In Oregon’s largest school district, a professional management lawyer leads the administrative team in its pas de deux with Portland’s teachers.  The dance had been going on, unendingly, for many months before teachers finally decided to strike.

One would think that all that talking and mediating could pirouette to a final curtain quicker than it has. A stark truth, however, is that administrators and school boards have discounted the importance of class size on student learning and behavioral health for decades. Never mind the reams of research that lead to the opposite conclusion, and never mind that parents and students are as adamant about this value as are educators.

School leaders manage to a number — even a low one — and because Oregon’s lawmakers have never sent an adequate sum to our 197 districts, that managing task has historically led to some indefensible decision-making.

Public school administrators are making crappy decisions about how to deploy insufficient resources and adding insult to injury by refusing to acknowledge the harms they cause when they “pack ‘em deep and stack ‘em high”.  But the onus for this crisis — which will soon spread to the second-largest district, Salem-Keizer, and beyond — lies squarely with legislators who determine a state budget every two years.

While bragging that they passed the “largest school budget in state history” in 2023, legislators failed to acknowledge that this amount was just 88% of what the state’s Quality Education Model (QEM) estimates as sufficient. Worse, it was even less than the previous biennium’s sum when adjusted for inflation.  Meanwhile, the overall state budget grew by 25.5% even as legislators shorted schools. When it comes to education, it is the adequacy, not the altitude, that matters.  And because the state’s investment gap is largely driven by the cost of lowering class sizes, ignoring that gap impacts every district.  That’s why it is downright cringy to watch the budget-writing legislators deflect responsibility for underfunding K-12, as they did in a recent hearing in Salem to fine-tune a biennial report on education funding. The committee repeatedly demanded “data” to prove that increased funding was necessary, yet their report ignored the most obvious evidence of the shortfall: the first-ever strike by Portland’s 3,500 teachers.

Legislators seem to be dancing on a stage in an entirely different universe.

What if schools had gotten what the QEM prescribed — $11.7 billion, instead of $10.2 billion?  Portland Public Schools could follow the best research on class size reduction, the Tennessee STARS study, and halve its K-3 classes, for instance, so that our smallest students could get the supports they need to thrive.

Instead, as it became clear that the money to offer this gold-standard education wasn’t there, Portland teachers surrendered their demands for class size caps in favor of smaller-scale workarounds. They missed the chance to resolve the strike quickly because three members of the school board nixed their own negotiators’ agreement with PAT’s team to add a parent-included class size resolution committee. Power, not money, was en pointe in that moment.

And that jete away from sanity extended the impasse for a week before the final curtain call on Nov. 26.

Laurie Wimmer is executive secretary-treasurer of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and longtime union and tax policy advocate.


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