By Tim Walker
Melissa Grothe recently returned to her home community of Astoria, Oregon to teach at Lewis and Clark Elementary. The move was welcome but came with what she called a “hard dose of reality about the difference between what our students need and what I can provide for them in a system so chronically underfunded.”
Which is why, as she spelled out in a op-ed column in the local newspaper, Grothe was ready to join educators across the state on May 8 in a “Day of Action” for more education funding.
“This activism is unprecedented in Oregon,” she wrote, “but things have become so desperate for our students that we are standing up like never before.”
The turnout was tremendous. In Portland alone, more than 25,000 educators and their supporters assembled on the city’s waterfront park.
Tiffani Davis, a teacher at Mill Park Elementary in Portland said, “I’m out here for the kids. There is a big inequity in schools. Schools with higher poverty lack the resources for the needs of our students. Academic demands go up and up but our supports go down and down.”
I am so proud to stand with you here in Oregon. Your colleagues across the country join you as you advocate for the public schools our students deserve. @oregoneducation #redfored #orleg pic.twitter.com/sEXTlvXFR1
— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) May 8, 2019
“We could do so much more if we had lower class sizes & mental health supports,” said her colleague Cindy Bradley-Cross, “but with 32 students including 7 with high needs & trauma backgrounds I can’t do everything I want to for them.”
Oregon has one of the largest average class sizes in the nation and the third lowest high school graduation rate. Schools don’t come close to nationally recommended staffing levels for school counselors. In addition, there are only 158 school librarians total – less than one per district, and the state’s school nurse ratio is 1:5481, more than four times the national recommendation.
Oregon schools are “in a state of crisis,” said John Larson, president of the Oregon Education Association.
The problem can be traced back to 1990 when voters approved Measure 5, which changed the school funding formula in an effort to limit property taxes. Another culprit in defunding Oregon’s schools has been the reduction in state corporate taxes.
The good news is that there is a bill called the Student Success Act that is under consideration in the state legislature. If approved – it passed the House on May 1 – the bill would increase Oregon’s K-12 budget by 18% or $2 billion.
“The Student Success Act prioritizes resources to go directly to the classroom, reducing class sizes, restoring critical programs like career-technical education and art and music, and providing for students’ mental and behavioral health needs,” explains Larson. “If the legislature is able to fully fund their Student Success Act, we could make game-changing investments in all students, including students of color, low-income students, and students from other historically disadvantaged backgrounds.”
Pushing the proposal over the finish line is a major impetus behind today’s demonstration. For 4th grade teacher Nekicia Luckett, who marched today in Portland, the Student Success Act could be a “transformational investment.”
“I’m here because I know that the students need a lot more than the state is giving them. We need more support. This is an opportunity for lawmakers to see how many of us are out here wanting this bill to pass.”