Imagine you work at a company where revenue and profits are lower year after year, meaning fewer resources and employees with which to operate. Every couple of years, the company cuts wages and benefits, the number of days employees can work for a pay check, and about 3-5% of its workforce. The employees that lose their jobs are exclusively new/young employees, and the cuts are made without regard to their job performance. The company, however, has just as many customers as it has ever had, many of whom have needs that require a tremendous amount of time and energy. Finally, your company is squarely in the public spotlight, derided for its failures in every media outlet in every market, and subject to constantly changing and increasingly stringent regulations by both the state and federal government.
Sound like a good company to work for? Hardly. Yet these are exactly the conditions Oregon’s teachers and other school employees face when they go to work each day. And unfortunately, despite their good intentions, Governor Kitzhaber and our state legislature’s recent mandate to create achievement compacts does nothing to solve the problems that face Oregon schools.
The elephant in the room is funding. The state budget has been squeezed both as a result of the recession, as well as increasing health insurance costs from the private insurers that cover our state’s workers. If that wasn’t enough, state K-12 education is getting a smaller slice of state revenue than in previous years, due to the growing cost of state prisons and other government services.
As a consequence, Oregon’s Public Schools and the educational services they can deliver, are in near-continual state of atrophy. Nearly every school district in the state has had to cut salaries, benefits, teachers, classified employees, school-days, services, or some combination thereof. Class sizes have ballooned as a result, and teacher morale is at an all time low.
We simply cannot expect schools to achieve great results for our students without providing the funding necessary to meet those ends. It should be obvious to even the most naïve observer that a class with 10 more students and 15 fewer school days translates into less quality instruction, attention, and time for every Oregon student, every year; and, if we compound those conditions over the 13 years students spend in our state’s public schools, one can reach no other conclusion than that our students are being cheated out of a quality education, as are their teachers of the opportunity to provide it.
Now we can all sit around and tell stories about how it’s those greedy public employees and their fat cat PERS pensions that are to blame, but that doesn’t solve the funding problem for our schools, nor is it honest. The fact is that most teachers and school employees work hard, long hours for a modest salary, that, even when combined with benefits, amounts to a lower level of compensation than their peers receive with the same level of education in private industry.
That doesn’t mean the Oregon Education Association and district teacher unions shouldn’t look seriously at reforming current contracts to include pay and tenure based on performance—they have to if they want to win back credibility with the public. However, until our schools are funded in a stable way that is adequate to meet our students’ needs and the public’s demands, reforms are impossible, as union members band together to hold onto what precious little funding that remains.
Oregonians can no longer afford to ignore the elephant in the room that is crowding out the educational opportunities for our children. Our schools need more funding: how about an achievement compact for that?