Walking out for the future in Portland

May 8, 2012

Grant Booth reports on a May Day protest by Portland, Ore., high school students.

"WHERE IS our future?" asked Ashton Riley, a senior at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., over the roaring chants of an energetic picket line. This was the central question for several hundred Portland-area high school students as they gathered early in the morning on May 1 at the Portland Public Schools (PPS) headquarters in Northeast Portland.

Their plan was to shut down the office, both in protest against the upcoming cuts in their district and in solidarity with other student actions taking place across the world on International Workers' Day.

Although a police presence (stretched thin by other actions occurring simultaneously across the city) made sure that office workers and administrators were able to enter the building, the intention of the organizers was to ask those coming to work to return home, rather than physically block them from entering the building.

PPS is facing particularly draconian cuts this year--it isn't the first time, and it won't be the last. "We're going to lose about 10 teachers at each school this year. Languages and other 'less important' programs are being cut. We've felt the pain of continuing budget cuts our entire lives, but this is particularly bad," said Ashton. She plans to major in business and music after graduating from high school, but is concerned about "extracurricular" programs like music facing harsh cuts.

According to The Oregonian, PPS plans to cut 110 teaching jobs, lay off 23 central administrative employees, cut 12 vacant office jobs, cut outdoor school for sixth graders and close two local schools in order to balance this year's budget cuts.

Paul Wells, a junior at Grant High School and one of the lead organizers of the protest, noted that this latest set of cuts is coming after "10 years of austerity following mismanagement in the upper levels of our government."

Everyone who's attended public school in the last 20 years has grown up in an age of austerity, in which "budget cuts" was an all-too-familiar phrase. In 1990, Oregon passed Ballot Measure 5, heavily supported by the lumber industry, which placed low caps on local property taxes. This made it difficult for Oregon schools to collect revenue from the lumber industry, making them more dependent on the state's general fund.

Since then, state funding has gradually (and sometimes not-so-gradually) been reduced without mercy, putting a decades-long squeeze on Oregon schools. National legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act and Obama's push for charter schools has only made the situation worse for schools like Grant High in low-income areas. These students have grown up knowing nothing other than increasing class sizes, strained programs and school closures--and they're angry about it.

VINCE, A junior at Jefferson High School, was at the protest to support other students. Over chants of "Who's future? Our future!" and "Hey hey! Ho ho! These budget cuts have got to go!" he said that students and teachers feel like the latest round of cuts is "the last straw," leading them to take serious action.

Henry Smith and Jack Strang, both seniors at Grant High and theatre students, were there because some of their favorite teachers and programs were being cut. Strang is concerned about how this limits options for students: "There should be opportunity for people to do what they're passionate about. We're afraid we'll be the last class with good opportunities and choices. If this is what they're choosing to cut, I want no part in it."

They were also concerned about how cuts to public schools would affect class inequality. Henry talked about the narrowing range of programs that would lead to a divide between those from a more privileged background who are set up to succeed and those who are "doomed to fail" because of the lack of resources available to them. "Soon, it will be only either [advanced placement] college students or dropouts," he said.

When police told students that they couldn't stay at the school, it had an unintended consequence: the students left on an impromptu march across the city. They passed the Harriet Tubman Leadership Academy, a public school for young women and one of the schools slated to close this year, and invited students to join them. Administrators placed the school on lockdown, and few students were able to get out before the doors were shut.

From there, students took off across the city in possibly the fastest-paced march I've ever been in, all the way to Lincoln High School in Southwest Portland. I commented to one student, "You make me feel like an old man." The elderly man next to me chimed in, "Imagine how I feel."

A heavy escort of both regular and riot police followed the students, but did not intervene or attempt to arrest any of them, despite the fact that they were in the street without a permit. One police car followed them at a slow pace, and informed students over a loudspeaker (in a monotone voice reminiscent of the countdown in a James Bond movie) that they would be subject to arrest if they didn't get out of the street. Students laughed and chanted louder in response.

Upon arriving at Lincoln High, students were blocked from entering the campus by a police line, and began a chant of "Join us, Lincoln! Join us!". But this school, too, had been placed on lockdown, and few students were able to join the ranks of the protesters.

From there, students set out through downtown to City Hall, maintaining a breakneck pace. Once there, Occupy Portland activist and mayoral candidate Cameron Whitten helped lead students in chanting. Portland Mayor Sam Adams came out to speak to them. "Basically, he thanked us for voicing our concerns and then told us to get back on the sidewalk," said Vince, who seemed unimpressed.

After marching back to the PPS headquarters where they began, students held another rally before dispersing for the day.

These actions won't end here. According to Wells, student organizers have formed into a group called Students On Strike (SOS), which is now planning major, district-wide events, including a Portland-wide student walkout on May 11. Portland students appear poised to take a stand against what they feel is an unjustified and unnecessary attack on public schools, which will push the education system from unsatisfactory to unsustainable.

Ashton put it well: "If people leave us with nothing, what will they get when they're old? We're being direct to get people to care; there's simply no other option left at this point."

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