Oregon’s anti-union mouthpiece

November 12, 2013

The main newspaper in Portland, the Oregonian, is showing which side it's on--and it sure isn't that of Portland teachers. Andrea Hektor explains.

IN THE midst of heated contract negotiations between the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) and Portland Public Schools (PPS), the Oregonian--the largest newspaper in Oregon--has become a mouthpiece for the attack on teachers and public schools.

Since bargaining started, the Oregonian's editorial board has written a series of commentaries bout negotiations that have become increasingly one-sided and anti-union. In multiple editorials, the Oregonian is misleading the public by distorting evidence and removing facts from important context. In doing so, they surreptitiously paint a picture of a powerful and greedy teachers union locked in a contract battle with a flawed but ultimately well-meaning school board.

Examining the facts of negotiations in context reveals a different story--one in which teachers' rights have the potential to be gutted, leaving schools with overcrowded classrooms and overworked educators.

An editorial printed in September, headlined "Portland teacher negotiations may need mediation to prevent strike," is particularly appalling in how it skews the facts of negotiations to portray teachers and the union as "the enemy" and the school board as "the good guys."

Portland teachers, parents and students standing up for quality education for all
Portland teachers, parents and students standing up for quality education for all

It begins by stating:

Union leaders from the Portland Association of Teachers say they don't want a strike, but their actions defy their words. Their latest proposals at the bargaining table suggest they aren't serious about reaching a negotiated settlement this fall or any time soon.

Similarly, an October editorial, headlined "Portland Public Schools and playing the 'kid card' in bargaining," outlines a "score card" for the district's proposal and PAT's proposal, and grades each on which is better for Portland's children. Guess who wins? Yep, the district scores better on almost every question, leaving the union portrayed as a group that is only using kids as a "bargaining chip" in negotiations.

BEYOND CLAIMING that the PAT is not serious about negotiations or educating Portland's children, the Oregonian has repeatedly emphasized three key points that are meant to turn readers against the union:

Teachers have demanded "huge pay raises for class sizes that exceed certain thresholds at various grades, such as a 55 percent salary hike--yes, that's 55 percent--for a third-grade class with more than 30 students." On the October scorecard "salary" item, the district wins for having a salary proposal that is supposedly better for kids.

PAT has proposed "tight restrictions on the district's ability to lengthen its school year for students beyond 176 days, which is nearly a week shorter than national norms."

The PAT proposal includes "limits on volunteers in classrooms, including parent volunteers."

To set the record straight, it's important to give the background that is conveniently left out of all of these editorial statements.

PAT's initial proposal, including a preamble titled "the Schools Portland Students Deserve," was a visionary attempt at addressing the problems facing our public schools. This proposal called for:

Reducing class sizes and caseloads

More electives, music, art, physical education, libraries and world languages

Wrap-around support services, including counselors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, second-language and special education teachers

Equity in allocation of resources to high poverty schools

Maintenance of enrollment rather than school closures

Use of standardized testing as only one tool for assessment of students

Academic freedom and collaboration for professional educators

These are reforms that are possible within the districts' budget and legal constraints, and are necessary to improve the quality of education Portland students receive. PAT is not alone in these demands, either. The Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, representing 12 different neighborhood associations, the Portland NAACP, the Portland Student Union, and many other community organizations have signed on to a resolution in support of PAT's preamble.

Unfortunately, on July 11, the district presented PAT with a nine-page letter declaring a multitude of articles, including the entirety of PAT's preamble, that they refuse to bargain over, on the grounds that the subjects within the articles are permissive, rather than mandatory. In doing so, the district refused to discuss the issues that matter most to teachers, parents and students. Because of the district's refusal, PAT was forced into bargaining over the district-mandated proposal.

This is important context for examining the dubious claim made in several editorials that teachers are asking for an 11.5 percent raise. Teachers have made it clear from the beginning of the bargaining process that their priority isn't salary. In fact, even Superintendent Smith has said that PAT and PPS are not far apart on salary. In teachers' preferred proposal, teachers proposed a 3.75 percent salary adjustment in the first year and 3.52 percent in year two.

Because the district chose to ignore the PAT's student-focused proposal and remains unwilling to discuss collaborative ways to reduce class size during bargaining, PAT was forced to suggest an alternate proposal that included connecting pay to class size and aligning teacher pay to recent raises given to some PPS administrators.

Furthermore, the PAT salary schedule has remained virtually stagnant since July 2010 and meanwhile, cost of living has increased 7.16 percent. And what the Oregonian of course never mentions is that when the district's meager cost-of-living raise is combined with their proposals to remove step lanes and increase teachers' out-of-pocket health insurance by capping the district's contributions, they are effectively asking Portland teachers to take a salary cut.

THE OREGONIAN editorials also slam PAT for not accepting the district's proposal to lengthen the school day and year. Teachers have made it clear that they care about both the quantity and quality of instructional time.

Contrary to the Oregonian's claims, lengthening the school year or school day does not automatically translate into a better education for students if the current school year isn't made better.

Wrap-around support services, more electives like art and music, smaller class sizes, etc.--the "permissive" issues that the district refuses to discuss are what will improve the educational experience for students. Teachers want the time to plan engaging curriculum, give students meaningful feedback and develop individual relationships with them--an impossible task given the current teachers' workload.

Between grading and lesson planning a teachers workday never really ends. In fact, a recent PAT survey found that nearly 80 percent of Portland teachers work an additional six or more hours beyond the 39.5-hour workweek, and 40 percent work an extra 10 or more hours per week.

Adding time to the official workday simply gives power to administrators to determine the best use of a teachers' time. The school board wants to make this situation even worse by removing the 180-student load limit.

Similarly, allowing an unlimited number of classroom volunteers erodes the rights of unionized professionals who are trained and qualified to act not only as caretakers of children during the day, but as educators.

When we allow parent volunteers to staff libraries rather than demanding professional librarians in every school, it increases educational inequity. Leaving elements of school staffing in the hands of volunteers--in lieu of full-time paid employees--means that instead of guaranteeing that every school has a library and librarian, only schools in which parents have the time and means to volunteer would have access to this important resource.

THE EROSION of teachers' rights is what is at the core of the district's offer. Their proposal erases nearly 30 pages from the previous contract while tremendously expanding management rights. The Oregonian barely ever mentions any of the more than 50 take-backs currently proposed by Portland Public Schools.

Unlike the district's propaganda, the Oregonian tries to include one or two lines in every editorial that acknowledges teachers concerns. This only makes their largely anti-union editorials more surreptitious. Under the guise of fair and balanced news the editorial board clearly pushes an anti-union, pro-district agenda.

A recent editorial written by Susan Nielsen, the Oregonian's lead education columnist, is a particularly telling example.

The title of Nielsen's editorial, "My labor advice to Portland Public Schools costs way less than $15k a month, " makes the reader think she is about to give the district a tongue-lashing for spending over one million taxpayer dollars on a team of high-priced consultants and corporate lawyers to direct negotiations.

While Nielsen's and other Oregonian editorials acknowledge the absurdity of PPS trying to claim fiscal responsibility in negotiations while paying consultant Yvonne Deckard $15,000 a month, that seems to be the extent of their criticism.

Nielsen uses her editorial to actually give PR advice to the district because she believes they are "flopping in the court of public opinion" against a politically powerful teachers' union that according to her "holds the home-court advantage."

According to Nielsen, the districts' proposal is an "appealing starting point for a negotiated settlement," the problem simply lies in the districts' PR strategy and actions outside of bargaining that have sown public distrust.

What Nielsen fails to understand is that it is actually the district that has "the home-court advantage" with millions of dollars, a whole team of at least five full-time professionals (including former Oregonian reporters) dedicated to working with the media and communicating with the public, and regular access to parents' e-mail inboxes--which they have regularly used to communicate the districts' views on negotiations.

If the district is in fact "flopping in the court of public opinion," it's because parents are seeing through their lies and understand that despite the claims of the Oregonian, teachers are fighting for the best interests of students.

All those concerned about the outcome of negotiations should feel empowered to see through the veneer of "unbiased" media and call out these articles for what they are--propaganda pieces meant to win readers to the side of the school district.

KNOWING THE recent history of the Oregonian editorial board helps explain why they have come out so strongly against the union.

A year ago, the Oregonian hired the Bend Bulletin's Erik Lukens as the editorial page editor. The non-profit "Our Oregon" investigated Lukens' history in a fascinating series of articles.

As the Oregonian point out, the Bend Bulletin is "widely viewed as the home to the most conservative editorial board of any major paper in the state. While there, he [Lukens] built up a back catalog of right-wing opinions, steadfastly opposed to taxes, union protections, and spending on basic services like schools."

Among other things, while at the Bulletin, Luken made the case for drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, lowering the minimum wage and decreasing taxes on the rich while raising them on the poor.

In 2010, the entire Oregonian editorial board opposed Measures 66 and 67, which minimally raised taxes on the wealthy and attempted to start fixing a broken corporate tax structure that allowed large businesses to pay a $10 minimum yearly state tax.

Revenue from these measures helped to fund budget shortfalls that affected schools and other public services. When taxes on the wealthy benefit schools, the Oregonian is against it, yet somehow now they feel justified in claiming that teachers are asking for too much.

If anyone has lost the moral authority to determine which side about Oregon's children, it's the Oregonian editorial board.

These viewpoints and opinions are completely out of touch with the majority of working people in Portland and Oregon and squarely represent the interests of the wealthy. Public opinion--counted via the ballot box--proved that the Oregonian's editorial stance against Measures 66 and 67 was something with the people of Oregon did not identify with.

Today, public opinion--in the form of community support for the PAT campaign--can again prove the editorial board is out of touch.

If the current negotiations do lead to a strike, it's quite likely that the Oregonian will vilify and denounce teachers as greedy and not caring about our kids. Let's be clear--it is the district, not the teachers' union that is pushing for a strike.

"The Schools Portland Students Deserve," put together by PAT, makes it clear that teachers are thinking in-depth about how to create an education environment that nourishes and enriches all students intellectually.

They are striving to create classrooms in which students can "obtain essential knowledge, engage in critical and creative thinking, develop independent inquiry skills and an appreciation for the arts, music, and literature, improve their physical and emotional health, and prepare for leadership roles in the community."

Parents, students and the community should fight with teachers for these goals and for a fair and equitable contract.

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