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- 15 Years after 9/11: Days of Infamy & Memory as History - September 12, 2016
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Teachers don’t often consider themselves to be in a political profession. If they are active in their union, they may take interest when their contract is bargained with their district. Teachers are usually fairly well informed when they decide to vote. But beyond this basic civic participation, educators’ focus usually remains steadfast on their students’ well-being and success. But the truth of the matter is that the education system at its very core is political, and teachers must themselves become politically active if they want to participate in sustaining a free, universal education for the children of this country. How they do that can take many forms. One of the most important steps teachers can take is to educate themselves about their own state budgets and education policies and build relationships with their state legislators.
Like many states, here in Oregon, the State Legislature is about to enter its 2013 session. The Governor has already proposed an education budget, and it's woefully under the needed funding. Unfortunately for Oregon's revenue stream, its unemployment rate has remained high since the 2008 economic crash, and it only has two of the traditional three legs of the taxation stool: income and property. In addition, Oregonians voted in 1990 to change the state’s constitution to cap property taxes for education to $5 per $1,000 of real market value per year. So now the state attempts to fill in the General Fund gaps in provisions for education with funds from the lottery. This year’s proposed budget falls close to $7 billion short of what public schools need to maintain their current livelihoods, which are the most strapped they’ve ever been. Some high schools are seeing class sizes approaching 60 students, and elementary classrooms are bulging with over 30 children crammed into classrooms built for far smaller numbers.
One cash-strapped district that lies in the southeastern neighborhoods of Portland decided to get proactive and become part of the budget conversation directly with their state representatives. This small urban district has the largest high school in the state, and most of its nine elementary schools and three middle schools maintain about a 75-80% poverty rate. It is host to one of the largest immigrant communities in the state, and its wide variety of students speak an estimated 55+ languages. In 2011, this district dealt with its massive budget shortfall by cutting over 80 positions (over 10% of its faculty), and the next year dozens more. (disclosure: I was one of the teachers who lost a position in the initial RIF). If the state education budget goes through as currently proposed, this district faces losing 77 more educators this year. The equivalent in furlough days would be 26 school days – or close to five weeks of no school. That means no education for the children of the district, no meals for the 75-80% of them whose only solid meals are obtained at school, no child care, and of course no pay or benefits for the educators. It’s a forbidding prospect in a district that has already been decimated by lack of resources.
This month, prior to the beginning of the state legislature’s session February, the teachers of the district invited the five legislators who represent the various areas covered by the school district to spend a few hours in some of its schools. The local education association proposed the initiative, calling it “Adopt a Legislator.” The two senators and three representatives were invited to spend an afternoon touring a school, seeing the classrooms with the teachers and children in action, then observing the hallways as the children left for the day, followed by a short meeting with the staff to have a personal conversation about the conditions in the school and the budget.
One of those state senators with a long record of public service, is also a pear farmer in Hood River, over an hour east of Portland. Recent redrawing of state districts pulled this urban school district into his usually very rural area of representation. On January 10, he drove over an hour and a half to visit the elementary school that had invited him. He met the principal and a fifth grade teacher, who took him around to visit classrooms. He learned that this elementary school has close to 680 students with a reduced staff of 22 teachers. The principal has no administrative help: no vice principal, no school resource coordinator, no TOSAs. So she must oversee the discipline, curriculum, scheduling, evaluations, and well being of all the students and staff on her own. It was clear she’d done a superior job at this because her relationship with the faculty was one of teamwork and mutual respect.
The Senator observed a kindergarten classroom of 30 children, whose desks barely fit into their classroom. The teacher has no assistant because almost all elementary assistants were laid off in the first RIF. In the fifth grade classroom, the Senator met a teacher who has one student with Downs Syndrome (who only has an assistant for two hours out of the day), a student with very difficult emotional challenges, and several students who came into her class with very low English speaking skills. Last year, the elementary schools lost all of their ELL teachers and all sheltered ELL instruction. Now the classroom teachers have become ELL teachers along with their regular curriculum. The children in the fourth grade classroom were hard at work trying to concentrate, because one of the new mandates that have fallen on these teachers is the requirement for all children to spend ninety minutes every day reading in the classroom. This of course is in the quest for higher state test results.
The Senator enjoyed a third grade class of 33 students in the music room as they played their recorders in terrific unison. The music teacher has survived so far because this particular district has enjoyed years of award winning music and drama at the high school level, and the School Board has made a herculian effort to maintain a barebones music program at the lower levels to feed into that. There is only one PE teacher, however, so they have to double up classes and she must teach over 60 students at a time in their weekly PE class. The librarians were all cut in the first RIF, so the library is staffed part time by a classified staff person who generously helps students check books out before and after school, and hosts each class their designated half hour library visit each week. The principal and staff have come up with myriad creative ways to adjust to the lack of help dealing with students who need a break from the classroom for behavioral or attention reasons. The teachers often remain at the school until 6pm or later because of the massive paperwork requirements that are part of all the mandates they must comply with, not to mention planning and grading. Despite all this, the hallways were clean and inviting, with student work all over the walls. The Senator was visibly stunned at the conditions the teachers and students had to deal with.
He met with the faculty for 45 minutes after the children went home, and listened sympathetically as teachers explained their workloads and their worries about losing more of their colleagues. One teacher honestly declared that they felt they were at a tipping point. If the budget can’t be increased and they lose more teachers or school days, many educators in the district would begin to consider leaving their beloved profession. The Senator observed how exhausted and strained the teachers were, but heard in their voices their passion for their students and their determination to adjust to whatever mandate next comes down the pike. He could not promise any major changes, but he was moved to tell them he would make as great an effort as he could when he got to the capitol to be their voice. He invited the teachers themselves to visit the capitol and talk personally with members of the Education Committee. And he asked if he could return to see how they were doing.
It was the first time those teachers had ever had anyone in government pay personal attention to them. The first time a legislator had taken the time to really see the conditions in the school. The first time they felt heard. It was a beginning. Establishing a relationship with a Senator or Representative is probably the most effective way to begin to impact legislation and the budget decisions. Before teachers get to the point of massing at capitols for pickets or lobby days, inviting their representatives directly into their schools can break down barriers and introduce a new reality for those lawmakers who often remain removed from their constituents concerns. Funding and education policy is only becoming more challenging. The most affected and the most exhausted – the teachers – must now learn to advocate for themselves and the future of their schools and students. Building relationships with their representatives is a good place to start.
To buy Cari's book that details her sudden unemployment, "How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks" please click here.