Advocating for better state funding
A crowd of local teachers clad in red gathered at the doors of Crooked River Elementary School Wednesday morning.
They entered the school building as one group right when the school day began, and later when the workday concluded, they all gathered again and exited as one group.
May 8, educators across multiple communities in Oregon participated in Oregon Education Association's Day of Action, a day in which they advocated on behalf of students for decades of disinvestment.
Staff at the other Prineville schools also gathered at the beginning of the school day and participated in other advocacy activities such as wearing red, placing signs in their cars, and hanging posters on their classroom doors.
Crook County Education Association President Michelle Nelson, a fourth-grade teacher at Barnes Butte Elementary, explained that the act of advocacy is in response to a host of problems caused by deficient state funding. She points out that class sizes are too high and the ratio of students to counselors and nurses is too high.
"The disruptive learning environment is a crisis," Nelson added. "We have teachers wearing protection on their arms so they don't get bitten."
A news release from the Oregon Education Association added that Oregon schools are missing mental and behavioral health supports and some schools have cut programs like art, music and physical education.
"This isn't about PERS and teacher salaries," Nelson said.
Many of the schools in communities throughout the state staged teacher walkouts on Wednesday and planned rallies and marches. Crook County educators opted to stay in school and ensure that students didn't miss out on any instruction time. But they didn't put in a normal day of work.
"We did essentially what is called a 'work the contract,'" Nelson explained. "Teachers put in lots of extra time coming in early, working through breaks, working through lunches, staying late while having kids in the classroom."
She added that teachers spent additional hours tutoring students, grading, calling parents and other activities, all of which is uncompensated.
"We were working our contract and then really just creating a list of the things that we were unable to accomplish when we only work our allotted contract time," she said.
The "working the contract" idea was born out of a brainstorming session among Crook County Education Association members. They wanted to participate in the advocacy effort, but do it in such a way that students and families face minimal impact.
"How do we keep it consistent for kids and families the best that we can, but at the same time show that the state has a responsibility to fund education to the Quality Education Model?" Nelson said of the thought process.
The Quality Education Model for Oregon Department of Education is produced by the Quality Education Commission every two years. It was initially developed to estimate the level of funding required to operate a system of highly effective schools in the state.
A potential increase in state funding is in the works that educators believe will help. The Student Success Act, a tax bill intended to pay for ambitious education reforms, is currently under consideration in the Oregon Legislature. The House passed it by a 37-21 vote following a lot of debate between Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
"If the Student Success Act passes, that is a large leap forward in the right direction toward funding education," Nelson said.
In advance of the local teacher demonstrations Wednesday morning, the Crook County School Board spoke out in support of improving state funding as well, adopting a resolution that urges state lawmakers to "lend their active support to efforts to increase funding for public education."
"As teachers around the state prepare to protest conditions in their district tomorrow, we celebrate our own teachers and support staff and administrators and their commitment to improving outcomes, classroom experience and graduation rates for our students," Scott Cooper, board chair, wrote in an email Tuesday. "That said, we recognize that a breaking point is coming in our ability to continue to support our students adequately and to give them the education they deserve. Each passing year, we find it harder to balance competing demands for too few resources. Soon, and very soon, the resources needed to sustain our investments will begin to be inadequate and we, too, will begin to regress in the progress we have made. We, therefore, call upon our elected representatives to take appropriate measures to ensure the financial security and adequate funding of public education."