Portland teachers are ready to draw the line

The showdown between teachers and school officials in Portland has reached a new stage, with a strike looming. Christopher Zimmerly-Beck and Meredith Reese report.

Portland teachers protest outside a session of the school boardPortland teachers protest outside a session of the school board

A BATTLE over the future of public schools in Portland, Ore.--pitting a teachers union with an education justice vision against a school board determined to push through concessions--is coming to a head, with a strike looking more and more likely in the new year.

On November 20, the school board for the Portland Public Schools (PPS) declared an impasse and walked away from negotiations with the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT). Over the following days, both sides submitted their "final offers" to a state mediator, signaling the beginning of a 30-day cooling-off period.

If no agreement is reached by the end of the 30 days, the board will be free to implement its final offer--but the PAT can hold a strike vote and prepare for a walkout.

Two days after the school board officially announced the impasse, parents, teachers and students rallied during rush hour on the Burnside Bridge in the heart of Portland. Demonstrators lined both sides of the bridge, waving signs and chanting "Students are more than test scores" and "Teachers up, up, school board down, down," to constant honks of supports from drivers.

The rally signaled the two very different visions for public education in Portland.

On one side is the corporate education agenda supported by local business interests, which is part of the larger national attack on public education. This approach aims to expand privatization and for-profit standardized testing schemes, while lowering both working conditions and living standards for teachers, including their ability to control curriculum in the classroom.

On the other side, teachers, parents, and students are fighting for "The Schools Portland Students Deserve"--the preamble to the PAT's bargaining proposals and the name of its social justice campaign, inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union's historic efforts to reverse the assault on schools and the union.

The PAT is using contract negotiations to fight for smaller class sizes, address the out-of-control use of standardized tests, and to win more counselors, librarians and other wraparound services that have suffered years of budget cuts.

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THE SCHOOL board's initial bargaining proposal called for 75 concessions, including raising the cost of health care for teachers, eliminating caps on class size and decreasing teacher prep time. Under pressure from the union and the community--including mobilizations by PAT supporters to fill the room at public bargaining sessions--PPS officials reduced their rollbacks to 51. But officials have refused to budge on the most important issues for teachers.

Teachers say that the language in the PAT's contract has been the only thing keeping class sizes in check--yet the district insists that talk of class size or larger problems in public education are outside the scope of bargaining.

At an October 21 school board meeting, teacher Erika Schneider talked about the stakes in the battle over class size and prep time:

I work through my half-hour lunch every day, preparing materials for the afternoon. I take curriculum and papers to grade home with me every night, to finish after I put my own children to bed. During the school day, there just isn't enough time for me to check in with every student...So when teachers talk about our workload, it is because our students suffer when their teachers are overworked.

In order to push through their unpopular proposals, the board has spent over $1 million on consultants and attorneys to implement an aggressive bargaining strategy. Most notoriously, the board is paying Portland's former Human Resource Director Yvonne Deckard $15,000 a month as a "consultant."

The district's out-of-control waste of public money to pay union-busters, its refusal to talk about issues like class size, and its drive to take away teacher prep time and other means of control over curriculum shows where PPS priorities lie: with privatization, fewer opportunities for students, and eliminating the voice of parents, students and teachers alike.

As Andrea Hektor reported in SocialistWorker.org, the PPS board has reliable allies among the city's mainstream media outlets--like the Oregonian, the city's biggest newspaper, which has run a smear campaign against Portland teachers.

To expose the outrageous claims of the school board and its supporters--for example, that teachers are only in it for themselves and are holding students back with their refusal to surrender to the corporate reform agenda--the PAT has followed in the Chicago Teachers Union's footsteps in creating a broad alliance of teachers, parents and students to organize in every neighborhood in the district.

Teachers and their supporters have attended numerous PTA and neighborhood association meetings, and gained the support of local activist groups like the NAACP and the Portland Parent Union. The union, along with these groups, have held numerous forums to reach out to those who have been hit hardest by the district's policies--the poor, working class and racially diverse neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland, which have seen the greatest numbers of school closures in recent years.

Along with the inspiring union-led community outreach, students have joined the fight to defend public education.

Over the last two years, high school students organized against budget cuts, forming the Portland Student Union, which has become a militant wing of the PAT's campaign for "The Schools Portland Students Deserve."

Students have held rallies and solidarity actions at school; connected with the broader labor community; and most recently coordinated a series of walkouts in support of teachers. On the same day of rally on Burnside Bridge; more than 100 students walked out of Roosevelt High School, making it clear that they stand united with Portland's teachers.

The PPS board shows no sign of backing down from its demands for concessions. But parents, teachers and students are united and mobilized, as a strike looks more and more likely in the new year.

After the November 22 rally, one thing is clear: Portland's teachers are ready for the struggle.