Whose vision will lead Portland schools?

A teacher in the Portland Public Schools--writing anonymously out of fear of reprisals--looks at the issues at stake as his union continues its fight for a fair contract.

Portland Association of Teachers President Gwen SullivanPortland Association of Teachers President Gwen Sullivan

ON JULY 11, more than 40 supporters of the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) attended the ninth bargaining session between the union and Portland Public Schools (PPS). To their dismay, negotiations were cut short when the district blindsided the PAT bargaining team with a nine-page legal document that contained a detailed list of issues the district refused to bargain over.

In a press release after the recent bargaining session, PAT President Gwen Sullivan responded to the district's maneuver:

Portland's teachers have been working in good faith to come to an agreement that is in the best interests of our students and classrooms. The District is wasting the opportunity to have a meaningful discussion about how to make schools better for our kids. That's why our members teach for a living, and why they are here volunteering their time to settle this contract. We are deeply disappointed that the District is refusing to talk about issues that matter a great deal to teachers, parents and students--like class size, standardized testing and evaluation.

The district's move is part of a calculated strategy to pigeonhole negotiations into a discussion about teachers' salaries and benefits. This will allow PPS to increase class sizes, attempt to close schools in low-income neighborhoods, and tie teacher evaluations to students test scores--all "legally permissive" bargaining issues that PAT's initial proposal tried to fight back against. District officials know that their stances on these issues are highly unpopular among most parents and students, so they are using the law to restrict bargaining to "mandatory" issues.

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THIS MOST recent move is part of an aggressive public relations strategy that emerged as the school year came to a close. At the end of May, the school board attacked the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) in a press conference, a mass e-mail to parents, and an op-ed article in The Oregonian. The school board declared its dedication to "transforming Portland's outdated teacher contract" and unveiled a new proposal that offered teachers 1 percent cost-of-living raises for the next four years while maintaining the vast majority of their initial proposal's regressive contract language.

By slightly increasing their compensation offer while ignoring all other areas of the contract, the school board hoped to paint the teachers' union as greedy and unreasonable. This is also the reasoning behind their more recent attempt to restrict bargaining to issues of compensation and benefits.

Their hope is that parents and community members, who are losing their jobs and homes in some cases, and struggling to get by on low wages in other cases, will side with the district because teachers have better salaries, health plans and pensions than they do. In reality, however, as historian Mark Naison has explained, a successful attack on the teachers' union will make it easier for other employers to attack workers.

What was most striking about PPS's end-of-the-school-year media assault is that the school board repeatedly attacked Portland teachers for looking to the Chicago Teachers Union--one of the most innovative unions in the country--for inspiration.

Referring to a panel at the recent Labor Notes conference in Portland in which PAT President Gwen Sullivan appeared alongside Sara Chambers from the Chicago Teachers Union, the school board lied to parents, claiming, "Before these negotiations even opened in March, PAT leaders brought in organizers from the Chicago Teachers Union to prepare for a strike in Portland...Portland is not Chicago. A teachers' strike doesn't have to happen here. It's not what Portland students or families deserve."

But ironically, just a month after making this declaration, PPS is using a tactic directly out of the Chicago playbook. By restricting bargaining to "mandatory" issues, the Portland school board is using the exact same strategy that Mayor Rahm Emanuel used in negotiations with the CTU last year--a strategy which ultimately led to a strike.

Of course, the school board absurdly obvious statement is true: Portland isn't Chicago, neither is it Seattle, nor is it San Francisco. But what the board doesn't realize is that Chicago has become a battleground between two visions for education.

One vision wants our schools to be run like a business--with CEOs at the top, teachers as the workers, and students as the products that teachers are supposed to "add value" to. On the other side, there is an educational justice movement that says our students are human beings, not test scores, and that children deserve participatory, critical curriculum grounded in their own lives--and that teachers should be respected and given the autonomy and the time to individualize instruction, plan and prepare engaging lessons, and give meaningful feedback to every student and parent.

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FOR THOSE reading the Portland school board's propaganda and trying to figure out which vision for public education the district subscribes to, a recent article in The Oregonian, written by Steve Duin, might help shed light on PPS's priorities. Duin examines the district's choice to extend a no-bid contract to consultant Yvonne Deckard, hired to help gut the teacher contract, while simultaneously laying off a well-respected social-service worker. Duin's article begins:

Nora Lehnhoff and Yvonne Deckard have one thing in common. Their employer, Portland Public Schools, doesn't track the hours they work. Deckard is a union negotiator who bills $300 per hour and has a no-bid $15,000-per-month contract with the district. Lehnhoff is a social service worker at Roosevelt High. She was paid a half-time salary this year to work a ridiculous number of hours on the health, addiction and hunger issues that cripple students in the classroom. Guess which one the district decided it can no longer afford? Wednesday was the last day in Lehnhoff's six-year run at Roosevelt.

Duin goes on to describe the hundreds of students that Lehnhoff has helped despite receiving less than one-tenth of Deckard's salary. He then hits the nail on the head when he explains why PPS would fire Lenhoff while rehiring Deckard: "Because in a world obsessed with test scores and graduation rates, the district can't track and quantify the difference Lehnhoff makes."

So while Portland and Chicago certainly have many differences, the corporate reform agenda is driving the actions of both school districts.

In Portland, the district is not closing down 50 schools in Black and Latino neighborhoods, but PPS did shut down two predominately Black and Brown schools two years ago, and tried again this year to shut down another two low-income, high-minority schools. And like Chicago, the Portland school board wants to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores. Like Chicago, the Portland school board wants to get rid of limits to class size and teacher workload. Like Chicago, the Portland school board wants to increase the amount of unpaid labor teachers do every day while getting rid of our job security.

So whether the school board admits it or not, they are playing the same role in Portland that Mayor Rahm Emanuel played in Chicago, and they are fighting for that same corporate vision of education. It will be up to Portlanders to learn the lessons from the other side in Chicago--the students, parents and teachers who responded to Rahm Emanuel's assault on public schools with resistance on a scale this country has not seen in decades.

The Portland Association of Teachers is making it clear that this fight is about more than just better pay. As PAT President Gwen Sullivan wrote in an editorial in The Oregonian, "Portland educators have come to the table not just to discuss salary and benefits, but to begin a conversation about equity, appropriate use of student assessment, class size and allowing professional educators the time and space to do what they do best--teach our children."

Like Chicago, PAT will need to help build a movement of parents, students and teachers that can fight for our vision for public schools--the schools our students deserve.

First published at Oregon Save Our Schools.