SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Tens of thousands of teachers are expected to walk out across Oregon this week, adding to the string of nationwide protests over class sizes and education funding.
Schools around the state, including Oregon’s largest district, Portland Public Schools, will close for at least part of Wednesday as educators press for more money from lawmakers. Some schools will stay open, as teachers opt for sit-ins or after-school rallies. Most schools participating in the walkout will still have staff on hand to administer national Advanced Placement testing or provide food and care to low-income students.
Oregon schools have some of the highest class sizes and lowest graduation rates in the United States. Districts have just one librarian, or none at all, fewer than the recommended number of counselors and been forced to cut programs like physical education and music.
“Our educators have been trying their hardest to cover up for our funding losses and try to do more with less,” said John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association. “We are to a point now that we can’t do that anymore. We want to show that Oregon isn’t immune to the problems we see in other walkouts throughout the country.”
The action follows a wave of teacher activism that began in West Virginia in 2018 and was followed by Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona. Teachers in North Carolina and South Carolina rallied at their respective state capitols last week seeking more money.
But unlike other states, Oregon teachers want to make it clear they’re not pushing for pay raises or other union demands. They say they’re walking out to highlight the conditions inside the classroom and how years of lower funding has affected children’s learning opportunities.
“This has nothing to do with bargaining and everything to do with providing for our kids,” said Imelda Cortez, a fifth-grade teacher at Howard Elementary School in Eugene. “The conditions have gotten so difficult that we haven’t been able to meet their needs. It’s sad to admit as a teacher, but these kids deserve a better education than what they’re currently receiving.”
Cortez attended the same elementary school where she’s now been a teacher for the past 15 years. She watched as the education she received as a child slowly disappeared: Class sizes swelled from 17 to 32 kids, and a lack of funding meant fewer nurses and librarians in addition to cutting extracurricular activities.
Teachers also say they’re unequipped to handle the complex behavioral problems increasingly exhibited by their students. Oregon has half the nationally recommended amount of school counselors at a time when 17 percent of eighth-graders say they have contemplated suicide in the past year, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
The state’s school funding problem can be traced to the 1990s, when voters passed two ballot measures to limit property taxes. Suddenly, the state — not cities — had primary authority over funding schools.
Lawmakers were never able to keep up with the rising costs of educating students and underfunded schools by as much as 38 percent of recommended levels in 2011, according to the state’s Quality Education Commission.
The Legislature this year is poised to pass a $1 billion per year funding package for schools to use to boost academic performance and expand mental health services.
The House sent the proposal to the Senate last week, but the measure, which relies on a minimal tax on Oregon’s wealthiest businesses, will likely be sent to the voters to decide.
“Our current school funding formula simply isn’t enough to fund schools,” said Barbara Smith Warner, the Portland Democrat behind the measure. “Teachers are at a crisis point and are now visually showing the public how bad the situation’s become.”