Many Oregon educators say their public schools are in crisis after decades of inadequate state funding. The teachers’ union is organizing one-day walk-outs and other actions across the state Wednesday. They want to bring attention to the issue and pressure the state legislature to pass an ambitious school funding bill.
But there’s a good chance that bill will already be passed and on its way to the governor’s desk for signature by the time they hold their rallies and marches.
John Larson says the teachers’ goal is simple.
"We want to create the best learning environments that our students can possibly have and we can’t do that right now with our current funding," he says.
Larson is president of the Oregon Education Association, the union representing Oregon’s public school teachers and support staff. Since the passage of several tax-reduction ballot measures in the 1990s, Larson says, school funding has failed to keep up with the need. That’s led to loss of teachers and counselors, as well as reduced library, art, music and PE programs, and more.
"And year after year after year," he says, "these tiny little cuts have amounted to a really large disinvestment in public education and our students are the ones who pay the price."
On Wednesday, teachers around the state will take action to show support for increased education funding. Some school districts, such as Portland Public Schools and Eugene School District 4J, will close for the day while teachers march and rally. Others will have half days or otherwise adapt their schedule to have less impact on classroom time while still accommodating teachers’ plans to protest.
Troy Pomeroy is president of the Medford Education Association.
"We’re going to have a modified schedule for students where students would have the normal amount of instruction for that day," he says.
Medford teachers had sought a closure for Wednesday, but the school board balked. So, Pomeroy says, teachers in Medford will take off early for an afternoon rally and march, but they’ll use professional development time that they’ll make up later.
Last year, the Oregon legislature tasked a joint committee to figure out what schools needed and to propose ways to pay for it. The resulting bill is called the Student Success Act. It would put an additional $1 billion a year into efforts to expand pre-school, reduce class sizes, boost the state’s dismal graduation rate and more.
This is the bill teachers have rallied around and that their actions Wednesday are meant to give momentum to. But whether the Student Success Act needs the boost or not remains to be seen.
The education funding bill passed the House last week. Democratic Representative Pam Marsh of Ashland celebrated what she called a long-overdue win for students. She concedes raising a billion dollars in new business taxes is sobering.
"But we also know that if we make smart, sound investments in education," she says, "that that will pay off for all of us in the form of workers who are more prepared to really contribute to our communities."
The Student Success Act passed the House on a strict party line vote, with no Republican support.
Republican Representative Kim Wallan of Medford says she and her colleagues generally agree with the need to increase school funding. But she thinks the Democrats were too quick to raise taxes and ignored opportunities to save money, such as in the Public Employee Retirement System.
"We would have looked at cost containment," she says. "There’s a lot of cost containment measures that weren’t even considered."
Wallan says the tax of a little more than half a percent on business revenue over $1 million a year is really just a sales tax in disguise.
Having passed the House, the bill is now in the Oregon Senate, where Democrats hold a bare minimum 18 to 12 supermajority. The bill is scheduled for a floor vote on Tuesday and they’ll need every one of those votes to enact the new tax. But while Republicans lack the votes to stop Democrats from passing the bill, they can gum up the works with procedural technicalities.
As of Monday, there were signs that Republicans would simply not show up, denying Democrats the quorum they’d need to hold a final vote.
But regardless of whether the Student Success Act actually does pass before Wednesday, teachers and their allies have been planning their May 8th actions for weeks. And the Medford Education Association’s Troy Pomeroy says if the bill is heading to the governor by then, the tone of the protest will shift.
"If they’ve done something by then, we can be like, ‘Well hey! Well, thank you for doing something,’" he says. "And we’re here to support what they did and kid of just celebrate."
And if more money for schools isn’t a done deal by then, Pomeroy says, teachers will keep pushing until it is.