Thousands of teachers showed up Wednesday morning, May 8, not to their classrooms, but to Tom McCall Waterfront Park in downtown Portland for a planned walkout and day of action.
Across the state, educators demonstrated — many by not showing up to teach — in unison, to protest what they say is three decades of underfunded public schools.
As a result of the mass protest, many districts, including Portland Public Schools, canceled classes, saying they didn't have the resources to safely operate schools without teachers.
In Portland, teachers gathered at the waterfront for a late morning rally, chanting and waving signs. The planned day of action came on the heels of an $8.97 billion state K-12 schools budget that most districts said isn't enough to cover the rising cost of employee retirement benefits, also called PERS. It also came as a vote on House Bill 3427, known as the Student Success Act, passed the House and awaited a Senate vote. The Student Success Act proposes a change to Oregon's corporate tax code that would generate an estimated $1 billion extra each school year, to help fund public education.
Less than 24 hours before the planned walkout, John Larson was both cautious and excited. Larson is the president of the Oregon Education Association, the largest teacher union in the state.
"I think there's been a lot of tension in the system and people have been wanting to find a way to channel their energy into telling the Legislature that their teachers and students deserve better schools," Larson said Tuesday, May 7. "This is giving them that avenue."
Wednesday's events followed months of organized rallies and demonstrations from Oregon educators, urging state lawmakers to devote more dollars to schools funding. Teachers and their unions have been vocal about what they say is a consistent inability to properly invest in K-12 public schools to secure enough teachers and reduce class sizes.
"May 8 is supposed to be an expression of our collective power and us coming together as teachers saying this is what we need as a society," said Alex Stegner, a teacher at Lincoln High School in Southwest Portland.
While some critics say teachers are punishing students and parents by walking out, Larson said the action was needed to send a strong message. "For 30 years we've been going about it other ways," Larson said. "We've been sending emails, working with parent-teacher organizations, working with local businesses and trying to do things not to disrupt, and for 30 years, it just hasn't had an impact. This is a way to get some people's attention."
Wednesday's walkout focused on funding issues in Oregon, but it followed a wave of educator strikes across the nation, primarily focused on securing better pay for teachers. "This is unprecedented in the state of Oregon, but we're building on the teacher walkouts and strikes around the nation, from West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona to Los Angeles, Denver, and Oakland," Suzanne Cohen, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, according to a message posted on the PAT website.
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