Tens of thousands of Oregon educators walked out of their classrooms on May 8, joining parents and other community members for a statewide “day of action” to pressure lawmakers to provide relief for overworked teachers.
A week later, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a $2 billion funding package into law to pay for smaller class sizes and more educational programs after making concessions to Republicans in the state Senate to secure their votes for the teacher-backed legislation.
“We’re all unified and working toward the goal of adequately funding public education,” said Roberto Aguilar, a school counselor in Milwaukie, Oregon, who participated in the day of action, which shut down more than 600 schools in at least 25 districts for all or part of the day.
An estimated 25,000 people gathered in downtown Portland, with thousands more demonstrating in other cities and smaller rallies in towns across Oregon. State law prohibits public employees from striking while a collective bargaining agreement is in force, so the Oregon Education Association billed the walkouts as a day of action.
“Feeling that sense of community and solidarity — I can’t overstate the emotion of it,” said Lindsay Ray, a math teacher at Westview HS in Beaverton, who said she’s dealt with class sizes as high as 44 students.
Aguilar, a school counselor at both Milwaukie HS and Milwaukie Academy of the Arts, said the understaffing issue has been a serious problem for his profession. He said he’s assigned to more than 400 students while the state average is more than 500 students per counselor. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1.
“With more support, we could do more preventative work instead of reactive work,” said Aguilar, who’s up against “an epidemic of mental health issues and emergencies.”
He took heart from participating in the day of action and even spoke at a rally.
“The vibe was amazing,” Aguilar said. “There were so many educators, families and allies.”
Half of the dollars provided by the new funding bill, called the Student Success Act, will go to reduce class size, as well as lengthen the school year and implement other measures to improve graduation rates, reading levels and attendance. Approximately 20 percent will fund early childhood learning programs and about 30 percent will go to career and technical education programs and free school meals for low-income students. The law will pay for these improvements with a new 0.57 percent business tax, to take effect in 2020, addressing a longstanding problem with revenue.
According to Jenny Smith, a spokesperson for the Oregon Education Association, the state’s voters passed a measure in 1990 limiting the amount of property taxes that can be collected for public education to 0.5 percent, requiring Oregon to rely on income taxes to pay for school funding. That revenue source has proved inconsistent, but voters have repeatedly shot down attempts to increase taxes through additional ballot measures.
“It’s a really volatile funding system,” said Ray. “With more funding, we can get more social workers and counselors and more resources put into programs to make sure we’re taking care of our kids. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about.”