The schools that Portland students demand

January 21, 2014

Sarah Levy reports from Portland on a demonstration of hundreds of students, parents and community members who want to send the school district a message.

THE PORTLAND School Board walked out of its own session early on January 13 when students mic-checked the meeting out of frustration that the district has not listened to nor prioritized their concerns of students as they negotiate with the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) in what has become an increasingly heated contract battle.

"Stay at the table! Don't impose! If you do, we'll strike too!" shouted the students, as all the board members except Steve Buel got up out from their seats and exited from a door at the front of the room--as documented in an incredible video by Peter Parks.

Backed by a standing-room-only crowd of around 500 parents, teachers, unionists and community members dressed in blue--the official color of PAT--the students read off a list of 10 demands they had compiled into a document titled "The Schools Portland Students Demand"--in reference to the PAT's preface to its contract proposal titled "The Schools Portland Students Deserve."

Students say they are frustrated that the district hasn't listened to their concerns, even while they claim to be acting in students' best interests as they take a hard line negotiations with the teachers.

Portland students send a loud-and-clear message in support of teachers
Portland students send a loud-and-clear message in support of teachers (Bette Lee)

When students weren't given any of the public speaker slots allocated by the board for the Monday night meeting, the Portland Student Union (PdxSU) decided to mic-check the meeting--a tactic revived from the Occupy movement for activists to insure that their voices are heard in decisions that will critically affect them. As Jefferson High School sophomore Sekai Edwards said via mic-check after the district walked out:

[Superintendent] Carole and the school board cannot make decisions for my education. They are not in the schools every day. They do not have my experiences, and they do not know what I need. If they expect me to respect them, they need to respect me. They need to listen to what I need and what I demand!

THE JANUARY 13 protest at Portland Public Schools (PPS) headquarters came after a week of student actions to build support for teachers, whose contract campaign has taken up issues of education justice, challenging swollen class sizes, inadequate health care and the standardized testing mania.

Walkouts were held at Jefferson High School and Wilson High School, while members of the Cleveland Student Union held speak-outs and went around their school during lunch period to talk to fellow students about what they would like to see inside their classrooms and other questions.

Also on January 13, supporters outside of Portland participated in a "Wear Blue in Support of PAT" day of action that led to a stream of photos of teachers and supporters wearing blue, all the way from Vietnam and China, to Peru and Chile, as well as from across the U.S.

The various demonstrations on January 13 and in the week leading up to it were organized by the Portland Student Union and Portland Teachers Solidarity Campaign, and brought out support from the Oregon AFL-CIO, Portland Jobs with Justice, Oregon FNHP, Teamsters Local 206, Laborers' Local 483, PFSP, SEIU Local 49, SEIU Local 503, IBEW, Oregon Education Association, ATU Local 757, Oregon Nurses Association, Washington State Nurses Association, AFSCME, International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 8, Portland IWW, National Association of Letter Carriers, teachers from Hillsboro and Beaverton, and single-payer health care activists from Healthcare for All Oregon.

Demonstrators approaching the district office were greeted by a Teamsters Local 206 truck blasting union tunes and providing a festive atmosphere in the lead-up to a rally that took place before the crowd marched into the board meeting.

THIS STRONG display of union solidarity is even more significant in the local context of increasingly bitter attacks on unions, and on Oregon teachers in particular.

Portland educators are not the only ones in the midst of heated contract negotiations in this state. Just in the last week, teachers in Medford have had a contract imposed on them, while teachers in Central District 13J, which covers Independence and Monmouth, have now been working without a contract for over 200 days. On January 13, school board meetings for Medford and Central District J13 were also packed with supporters of teachers.

The simultaneous attack in Oregon is no coincidence. As the largest sector of unionized workers in the U.S., teachers are being singled out as part of the larger assault on the working class as a whole. This is compounded by the wider drive to privatize public services, including education, plus the push by business interests to transform Oregon into a "right to work" state, as happened in Michigan.

In Portland, PPS has used increasingly aggressive tactics in negotiations with the teachers, canceling meetings and using the media to spread confusing information about concessions they've supposedly made--these have actually come in the form of non-binding "supposals," meaning they aren't set in stone. As Alexia Garcia wrote for Labor Notes:

PPS is not bargaining in good faith; it has refused to talk about issues that are important to teachers, to the point that PAT has filed an unfair labor practice...The district has the Portland Business Alliance on its side, and therefore access to media, which has been incredibly biased. And PPS has all parent e-mail addresses, which it uses to send out information that excludes the teachers' side.

THIS IS the context in which Portland students decided to take matters into their own hands by creating a list of things they think should be in a teachers' contract--issues the students see as not only affecting their classrooms, but their futures.

The PdxSU's "The Schools Portland Students Demand" offers a counter to the increasingly common line in the mainstream media that students are being used as pawns by their teachers in contract negotiations. The statement offers students a way to confront a board they see as claiming to act in their interests, while failing to address the issues that matter to them.

The list of demands includes:

1. Class sizes less than 20
2. Proper funding of the arts
3. More time with guidance counselors
4. Student-teacher collaboration in building curriculum
5. Rich, relevant curriculum--not Common Core
6. Democratic process in the allocation of funds
7. Restorative justice--not suspensions and expulsions
8. Funding for wrap-around programs
9. Support for all teachers
10. No school closures

The students' document ends by stating that PPS's first step toward meeting these demands must be an agreement with the PAT's contract proposal for "The Schools Portland Students Deserve."

"We wrote 'The Schools Portland Students Demand' because, oddly, we tend to be forgotten when it comes to our own education," said Cleveland High School senior and PdxSU member Emma Christ.

Marley Schlichting, a Cleveland sophomore, said she hopes the "Demands" can be used to strengthen the voice of students: "I believe that within all of this bargaining, there are--or at least there should be--three groups [at the table]: the school board, the teachers and the students. The school board has communicated what they believe, the teachers have voiced what they think is best, and now we, the students, have done so as well."

Elijah Cetas, a Cleveland senior and member of the PdxSU, likewise explained that he thought the list of demands:

puts into perspective what the PAT is asking for, and how it's not really that radical. The kinds of things listed on "The Schools Portland Students Deserve" should just be normal. But they are being painted as radical. We wanted to show people that we are our own group. And these are our goals. The PAT represents student interest, and we support them for that, but ultimately, we are autonomous and fighting for students.

Ian Jackson, another Cleveland senior and student activist, said he hopes "The Schools Portland Students Demand" document can also be used as a tool for moving forward beyond the teacher contract solidarity campaign. "Students know that the contract isn't enough," Jackson explained. "We have to win [the contract], but we also have to organize past that...We have to be talking about what it's going to actually take to get all these things."

At the January 13 rally, Jefferson student Sekai Edwards talked about what's at stake for students, and explained how the attack on public education goes beyond schools.

"I have sat in classrooms and learned that inequality is a thing of the past, but been a victim to it in these same classrooms," said Edwards, who goes to the only majority Black high school in the entire state of Oregon, one where three-quarters of students are on free or reduced lunch. Edwards noted that it's no coincidence the Jefferson cluster of elementary schools that feed into the high school has seen more school closures and reconstitutions than all other clusters in PPS combined.

"In the face of district proposals to destroy the already crumbling education system, we are here to say: No!" Edwards continued. "The district cannot take away my education. I support my teachers. We support our teachers. Carole and the school board, stop claiming you speak on my behalf. You are not a student, and you are not dependent on this educational system. But we are."

THE GREAT turnout at the January 13 demonstration shows how Portland students, the labor movement and the community are well aware of how the PAT's contract struggle is about much more than the workers represented by it.

As students raise their voices, organize walkouts across the district, assert their own demands and show solidarity with their teachers by occupying school board meetings, it will become more and more difficult for the district to claim it speaks and acts on behalf of students--when, in reality, it is trying to push through its own union-busting agenda.

If Portland teachers win this showdown with the district, it will be a victory not just for them, but for teachers across the country. After the heroic strike of the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012, the victorious MAP test boycott in Seattle last year and the spreading movement of parents who are refusing to let their kids participate in standardized tests, all eyes should be on Portland as the next chapter in what Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian has described as an emerging "Education Spring."

While the chapter has not been finished yet, Portland students are showing their determination to not be passive actors, but writers of their own destiny. They see that nothing less than their collective future is on the line. And they're standing up for their demands because, as Schlichting put it, "There should be no compromise when the excellence of education is at stake."

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