Preparing for a test of education justice

Grant Booth and Meredith Reese report from Portland on the stakes in a battle pitting public school officials against a determined teachers' union and its supporters.

Madison High School teachers at the front of the crowd outside Portland Public Schools headquarters (Chris Beck | SW)Madison High School teachers at the front of the crowd outside Portland Public Schools headquarters (Chris Beck | SW)

A PORTLAND teachers' strike seems imminent in the coming weeks as negotiations between the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) and Portland Public Schools (PPS) stalled in early January.

Contract talks have been going on since the spring, with the school board declaring an impasse on November 20. The subsequent 30-day "cooling off" period has ended, freeing the district to impose its contract and the teachers to strike, if either side deems it necessary.

In December, the two sides came to tentative agreements on more issues than they had in the previous eight months of bargaining, but as this story was being written, it appeared that the movement had come to a halt.

In a letter to parents and community supporters on January 3, PAT President Gwen Sullivan wrote, "Before winter break, there was encouraging progress, but meetings yesterday and today have underscored clear differences in priorities between Portland teachers and the district. We are still far apart on key issues."

Among those key issues are class size and workload caps, which have become a rallying cry for parents and students as well as teachers. In a recent online poll by the Oregonian, a majority said class size was the issue most important to them.

This is no surprise considering that Oregon ranked among the five worst states in the country in staffing cuts, with Oregon teachers taking on 35 percent more students than the national average.

Yet PPS officials want to remove current limitations on teacher workload from the contract--meaning teachers could see their total students jump above the current cap of 180. Since nearby Beaverton School district removed similar limitations from its contract with teachers, classes have ballooned to over 50 students in some cases. Many Portland students and parents fear this could become the new reality if the district gets its way on this contract.

At the same time as they try to overload already overcrowded classrooms, the district is trying to squeeze teachers' income by capping how much PPS will pay for health insurance.

Currently, the district pays 93 percent of health insurance premiums. If PPS gets its way, all further insurance premium increases over the cap would be paid for by teachers. PAT estimates that this would mean a drastic increase in out-of-pocket health care costs--an average of $11,000 more per teacher over four years. Because the salary increases proposed by the district are meager, teachers would be taking a pay cut with PPS's proposal--despite the fact that the district recently acquired $16 million from the state because of cuts to public employee pensions.

The district could impose its final offer at any time, which would hasten the threat of a strike. Under Oregon law, unions must wait 10 days after filing intent to strike before they can walk out.

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PAT AND PPS began contract negotiations last April. Inspired by the demands of the Chicago teachers' strike in 2012, PAT's initial contract proposal began with a preamble envisioning "The Schools Portland Students Deserve." This document emphasized the fact that working conditions for teachers are the learning conditions of students, and called for changes to address social inequality. Some of the key points the PAT's proposal called for are:

-- Reduction in class size and caseload
-- Time to prepare, and spend with individual students and parents
-- Collaboration with students and parents to fight education "reforms" that limit curriculum
-- Increased wrap-around support services for students
-- Restoration of electives and teaching material that "matters for the whole child"
-- Additional funding for schools in poverty-stricken neighborhoods to compensate for social inequality
-- Equalized access to extracurricular activities, art, music, and PE across the district
-- Prioritization of maintaining enrollment over closing schools
-- Limits on the role of standardized testing in teacher assessment
-- Autonomy for teachers regarding pedagogy, curriculum and assessment
-- Accountability and mentoring for struggling principals

The school board, influenced by the interests of Portland's business elite, countered with an aggressive initial proposal that erased 30 pages of previous contract protections and included over 70 takebacks. Angering many in the community, the district hired the city of Portland's former human resources director Yvonne Deckard as a union-busting strategist--at a cost of $15,000 per month.

Additionally, PPS declared most of the teachers' demands--including the entirety of "The Schools Portland Students Deserve" preamble--"permissive" and refused to bargain over them.

This was an attempt to delegitimize the union's demands around working conditions and curriculum control, and instead focus the debate into the narrow arena of salary and benefits. But teachers have insisted from the beginning that pay isn't at the heart of their demands--they are continuing to fight for a contract focused on workload, class size, equity and independent curriculum.

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THE BOARD'S actions closely parallel those of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who tried to push crippling concessions on the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012. Teachers' unions nationally are finding themselves in some of the toughest battles they have ever faced.

These attacks are designed to scapegoat teachers--and public-sector employees in general--and pit low-wage workers against better-paid unionized workers. The goal is to distract the public from the real source of economic problems--the insatiable greed of Wall Street and Corporate America and the austerity agenda pushed by both major parties--and focus anger on one of the remaining strongholds of union power in the U.S.: teachers' unions.

The business and political elites are trying to restructure public education by breaking any control teachers still have over curriculum, replacing it with endless preparation for standardized testing, which disregards students' individual strengths, creativity and personality and focuses on test scores that reflect rote memorization. Test scores are then used as justification for cutting funding and closing schools in disadvantaged communities.

The Portland Association of Teachers made waves last year when it refused to agree to a deal for federal money under Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" initiative, which tied teacher evaluation to test scores.

PAT wasn't the only Oregon teachers' union to put up resistance, either. Earlier in 2012, two nearby school districts in East Multnomah County went on strike.

Along with the urban school districts, rural schools in Oregon have been hit hard by the economic downturn. During the East County contract negotiations, Eagle Point teachers in far southern Oregon went on strike. Medford teachers are about to begin working under a contract imposed by their school board and may be heading towards a strike.

This is the context in which the PAT, which has never been on strike, finds itself: surrounded by strikes and near-strikes of Oregon teachers, battling some of the worst class sizes and staffing cuts in the country, and facing another round of effective pay cuts.

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TEACHERS HAVE had strong support in their campaign to win a fair contract.

Last October, for example, over 600 educators, students and community members rallied outside the district office, before all of them went inside to attend the school board meeting--the crowd overflowed out of the meeting room and into the lobby.

During the meeting, students and teachers grilled the school board for refusing to bargain over issues of class size and workload. Ian Jackson, a senior at Cleveland High School and leader in the Cleveland Student Union, asked:

If teachers don't have time to plan curriculum or even build curriculum--a right that the district is attempting to take away--then how am I supposed to learn that curriculum? If you continue to refuse to bargain over the issues that matter most, students will be stuck in an educational system that leaves no time for education. Please set aside your reckless, union-busting agenda, and do your job!

The following month, two days after the school board declared an impasse in negotiations, thousands of teachers and supporters rallied on the Burnside Bridge in downtown Portland during rush hour. The same day, more than 200 students walked out at Roosevelt High School in North Portland in solidarity with their teachers, and the Portland Student Union held a convention to build the foundations for a stronger citywide student network.

Student organizations have played a crucial role in this fight. In support of the teachers' demands, several dozen students held a rally on the steps of Cleveland High School on November 15. Around 70 students walked out at Wilson High School on December 13, and parents rallied outside the district headquarters on the morning of December 18.

The Portland Student Union and Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign (PTSC)--an independent community group organizing to connect students, parents and teachers--have called for a week of action starting January 6 and ending in a national day of action on January 13. In Portland on the 13th, solidarity activists will be converging on the school board meeting. PTSC is asking supporters around the country to wear blue that day and send in photos showing solidarity with Portland teachers. Teachers in New York and Washington have already sent statements of support with the messages that "your struggle is our struggle."

As Ian Jackson said in an interview with local radio station KBOO:

We want to use the school board meeting on January 13th to show the district that none of us [students] are going to cross the picket line [if the district forces a strike]. We want them to see that we are going to stand in solidarity with our teachers until they win. We want them to see that we're all in this struggle together, and so when [teachers] go on strike, we go on strike.

With national and local support like this, a teachers' strike in Portland could send a powerful message--that Chicago's walkout in 2012 was not an aberration, but a new beginning of working class resistance.

Teachers' unions across the country are trying to adapt the Chicago model to their local struggles, becoming a leading force in the fight for equity and adequate funding for public schools, and developing strong ties with the students, parents and community members hit hardest by the Great Recession.

If the CTU strike was the opening chapter in a new story of the fight for educational justice, Portland teachers, parents and students hope to write the next chapter in the coming weeks and months.