At least 20,000 educators massed in Portland on Wednesday, May 8 — turning city streets and the waterfront park into a sea of red — during a rally for increased funding of public schools.
Teachers and their supporters across the state are calling for lawmakers in Salem to pass a bill dubbed the Student Success Act, which would raise another $2 billion for public education using a gross sales business tax. Without the tax, the proposed state budget for K-12 schooling is $8.97 billion.
The Student Success Act has passed the Oregon House — but may be trapped in the Senate after Republicans walked out, denying a quorum. Detractors say there's nothing in the bill preventing lawmakers from diverting the funds to other purposes, while others think the money may be gobbled up by public employees' pensions.
With the bill's fate up in the air, the Pamplin Media Group canvassed the crowd for perspectives on education from across the region:
Reynolds School District:
Tiffany Hallquist is fighting against the 11% cap. The Troutdale Elementary Kindergarten teacher explains that whenever a student is designated as special needs, the state only pays for 11% of that child's extra care — with the local district footing the rest of the bill.
Hallquist, now in her sixth year at the recently reconstructed school, says that gives the school an incentive to avoid the extra financial burden.
"The ripple-down is, in Kindergarten, they don't want to assess any students," she said. "There shouldn't be a cap on what our students need."
Diane Walker, an educational assistant for two years at Fairview Elementary, adds that some Kindergarten classes have 26 students, including six with special emotional or learning needs.
"It's almost impossible for the teacher to teach," Walker said, adding: "We need funding for our specials. We only have P.E. and music part time."
Oregon Trail School District:
The Quality Education Model was designed as a bipartisan tool for school districts. But for Cedar Ridge Middle School educator Carrie Scaife, the results are disappointing.
"We're far, far below it, and we have been for years," said Scaife, who teaches eighth grade language arts in Sandy and has been with the district for 15 years. "Oregon has divested in education for years, since Measure 5 passed."
With class sizes reaching 35 to 45 students, she says classrooms don't have enough desks, so some students sit on folding chairs. She doesn't blame the issue on local leaders. "Our district is very fiscally responsible," she noted.
Sarah Fleming works as a media specialist at all three middle schools in the district — and says she's seeing classes of about 39 to 42 students. "And next year's is even bigger," she said.
The 18-year veteran of the district argues that increased investment must happen now, before the next economic crunch strikes. "Right now we're not in a recession and we're still cutting," Fleming said. "We can't keep relying on lottery and marijuana sales and income tax for stable funding."
Canby School District:
At Canby's Knight Elementary, Joyce Brown teaches English language development to students, who usually arrive at class fluent in a different language.
After 10 years with the district, Brown travelled to Portland to advocate for increasing the investment in public education across Oregon.
"Our students need the support of lawmakers, our leaders, our teachers, parents and community members to give them the education they deserve," she said. "It does require money."
Forest Grove School District:
Jeff Matsumoto isn't reinventing the wheel. But after 18 years with the Forest Grove School District, the second grade teacher at Harvey Clarke Elementary is pushing for more funding — again.
"It's not necessarily a new message. We've been sorely lacking funding for many years," Matsumoto said. "This is an opportunity to change how we prioritize what we do for our school kids in a generational, ground-breaking way."
Gazing over a crowd of 20,000 massed on Tom McCall Waterfront Park, he felt a sense of solidarity.
"We're not alone."
Portland Public Schools:
Amanda Jane sees 182 students every day as an English teacher at Lincoln High School.
"If you see 180 people a day, how do you even know their names, much less give them the services they need," Jane asks. Armed with a tambourine and pom-poms, the 13-year veteran of the district is hoping state lawmakers will stiffen their spines to make a change.
"It's a lack of will in Salem. Politicians are embedded in corporations."
Beaverton School District:
When Larry Crnich started teaching 14 years ago, the average class size was 24 or 25 pupils. Now it's 31.
The Bethany Elementary fourth grade teacher blames Measure 5, which established limits on property taxes and shifted the burden for education funding onto the shoulders of state lawmakers.
"Schools are in trouble," Crnich said. "The state of Oregon needs to find a continually stable form of funding."
He said there isn't enough money in his school for Emotional Growth Centers — a type of pull-out program for kids who need extra help.
West Linn-Wilsonville School District:
Science teacher Steve Walsh knows his community has been more fortunate than some. But the Athey Creek Middle School educator is still concerned about the cuts to his community.
"When we experience reductions in funding, that translates to reduced staff, less programs, less support staff," he said. "We're a more fortunate district, for sure, but we still feel it."
Gladstone School District:
During her 18 years with the Gladstone School District, Erinn Emmons says she has seen how her student body has been squeezed by the Great Recession.
Emmons, who teaches eighth grade language arts at Kraxberger Middle School, believes the tough socio-economic conditions have brought new challenges to local teachers in the four-school district.
"We're a super small school district with very few supports for our kids," she said. "We have to fund education. We need more help."
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