The Truth About Oregon’s Schools: What Willamette Week’s Cover Story Got Wrong

Recently, Willamette Week published a supposedly serious, straightforward, no-nonsense, 3,000 word cover story on Oregon Schools and the financial crisis they face, titled, “Feed the Beast.”

As a teacher, I was certainly curious. In the seven years I’ve taught in Oregon, I’ve had my salary frozen, half-stepped, furloughed—I even once lost my job because the Salem Keizer School District had a budget shortfall in 2011. So what’s the poison pill that’s killing Oregon’s schools?

According to WW’s Nigel Jaquiss: teachers. And teachers’ unions. Yep—you see, we teachers are just rolling in dough: our raises are too big, our salaries are enormous compared to those in other states, and the matchup between the “amateur” local school boards and our “sophisticated, professional negotiators from the Oregon Education Association” is “like pitting a third-grade kick and chase soccer team against the Portland Thorns.”

 

The Lies

On the first charge, using Portland Public Schools as a test case, Jaquiss cites the annual step increase teachers receive of 3.4%, “on top of a cost-of-living increase of 2.3 percent”, to allege a yearly raise of 5.7%. On the basic math he’s correct, but what’s left out is the legacy of furlough days, step freezes, and the reduction or withholding of COLA (cost of living adjustment), on top of the thousands of Oregon teachers that lost their jobs due to budget shortfalls during the recession. That amounts to millions of dollars that Oregon teachers have lost out on in since 2009, but that fact, and it’s impact on the financial “Beast”, is ignored.

Blind to this recent history, Jaquiss alleges through Tim Nesbitt, former advisor to Governors Kulongoski and Kitzhaber, that “two years ago lawmakers tried catching schools up by increasing the state’s education funding by an unprecedented $1 billion—and it still didn’t seem to make a difference.”

Actually, it did make a difference. I saw it happen in my own district, Oregon City—now we get half a step salary raise each year, we have no furlough days (in my first year there, 2011-12, we had 15), and K-12 Language Arts teachers got brand new textbooks, along with other investments. Other school districts did the same: they used that money to restore what had been the status quo before the recession. He should have known that, but Jaquiss didn’t bother to interview any teachers for the story—not one.

Maybe that’s because he and WW were more interested in attacking Oregon teachers than they were in discovering the truth. How else can they explain their bogus graphic with an apple representing the average salary of teachers in Oregon ($58,758) that’s at least twice the size of the apple representing the national average ($56,383), despite the paltry difference of $2,400, or 4%? They also imply (with a massive red banner at the end of the “Where the Money Goes” section) that teachers shouldn’t receive healthcare coverage, because it’s too expensive. But then, that’s not as bad as the fact that throughout, Oregon schools are portrayed as cartoon monsters, gobbling up money, taking over school buses with dollar signs in their eyes, steamrolling, stinking, out-of-control chimeras. And in an article that spends a large portion of its 3,000 words arguing that teachers salaries are too high, that their raises are too generous, that their healthcare somehow costs more than other professionals’ healthcare (otherwise, why bring it up?), one doesn’t have to think too hard about who those monsters are meant to represent.

But while arguing that Oregon teachers are overpaid and receive overly generous benefits, Jaquiss forgets to mention that to teach in this state, one needs to earn a Master’s degree within five years, while most states require only a Bachelor’s degree to stand at the front of the classroom. Surely, those degrees don’t pay for themselves.

Oh, and in addition to that extra year or two of schooling, Oregon teachers work in some of the nation’s most overcrowded classrooms, as the article itself notes, “Oregon students already face among the nation’s worst student-teacher ratios.” That means more students to manage, parents to communicate with, and papers to grade: a.k.a. a larger workload. Doesn’t it seem reasonable to expect that if we require more of our teachers than those other states, they ought to be paid more too?

No—of course not—it’s our “sophisticated, professional” union negotiators vs. the innocent, provincial school boards. Jaquiss describes it this way: “But often, school board members and the union compete to show parents who values teachers more—and that tends to make the deal teachers get expensive.” He then provides no proof for this claim, except a vague assertion from Sue Levin of Stand for Children Oregon, who says, “In teacher contract negotiations, there’s a rock, which is the union, but there’s no hard place.”

This is a flat-out lie. When schools cut teachers, freeze salaries, and put furlough days into the calendar during the recession, locals teachers’ unions were forced to agree and go back to their members with the rawest of deals. Oh, and those sophisticated, professional negotiators who argue on behalf of teachers? In both districts I’ve worked in, they’re ordinary classroom teachers who volunteer their time to represent coworkers, not outside experts or hired guns from the OEA.

Furthermore, the charge that school boards are gullible, “ah-shucks” boobs is complete nonsense. School board members tend to be some of the most successful, intelligent people in their communities—we’re talking lawyers, doctors, former teachers, small business owners, and corporate professionals. Moreover, when negotiating with the teachers’ union, school boards rely on superintendents and other district administrators to help them understand every nuance of the budget; they can also hire outside attorneys for help—a tactic Portland Public Schools recently employed.

So how did Jaquiss and Willamette Week get it so wrong about teachers and Oregon’s system of education? For one, as mentioned earlier, not a single classroom teacher was quoted or even mentioned in the story. That’s a hell of an odd choice for a 3,000 word cover story on education, if not a naked act of journalistic fraud.

Two, Jaquiss relies almost exclusively on information from state legislators, special interest groups, and a private consulting firm. In other words, he writes the sort of story we should expect given his sources, a story in which greedy, union-backed teachers rob the poor students and taxpayers of their right to a well-funded education, while diligent, hard working politicians and education advocates bang their heads against the wall, good intentions all for naught.

But this is a grossly misleading picture of public schools in Oregon. Considering their workload and the state’s Master’s requirement, it could be argued that Oregon teachers are, if anything, underpaid. And Jaquiss fails to mention, or seemingly even consider the pay cuts teachers took during the recession, instead implying that they continued to receive hefty raises year after year. Worse, the explicit charge that big, professional union negotiators taking advantage of school boards is the root of the K-12 budget crisis is the worst kind of speculation: an uncorroborated lie based on hearsay, not a shred of data in the bargain.

To WW and Nigel Jaquiss: run a retraction, publish an explanation of what you got wrong, and apologize for printing such an ill-researched, thoughtless, biased story, lest that’s what readers should expect in the future.

 

The Truth

So what’s really behind the funding woes of Oregon’s schools? It’s complicated—but let’s start with what the piece in Willamette Week actually got right.

First, as Jaquiss correctly points out, “in 1990, voters capped property taxes, and later constricted money to schools even more by limiting property tax growth to 3 percent a year.” That ballot initiative, Measure 5, also made the state responsible for school funding, instead of local government. As a consequence, “Today, schools are largely funded through the state budget by income taxes, which go up and down with the economy like a roller coaster. Since 2000, Oregon income tax receipts have declined three times—in 2001-02, for instance, personal income tax receipts plunged 19 percent.” Additionally, the piece has a nice graphic showing that K-12’s share of the Oregon budget has declined significantly over the past decade, from 44.8% in 2003-5, to 39.7% in 2013-15.

In large part then, the equation is fairly simple: property tax revenues have decreased relative to their portion of school funding; the stop gap—income taxes—are highly volatile, causing major swings in the money made available for education; and in the eyes of state legislators, K-12 education isn’t the priority it has been historically. They may disagree with that characterization, but the fact is that if our current batch of legislators (and our newly, non-elected governor) truly valued education, they’d make changes in other aspects of the state budget to find the money.

The other factor to consider is PERS, the pension retirement system for state workers, which is a considerable burden on all state finances, let alone schools. On that front, in an unbelievably short-sighted and foolish decision, the Oregon Supreme Court recently gutted reforms that would have significantly lessened that burden. The worst offenders are those recipients in the “tier 1” category, whose benefits are so unreasonably generous, it’s embarrassing.

To be clear, people shouldn’t be cheated out of receiving a fair pension for their work, and it’s awful when corporations and states try to renege on paying those benefits, but when PERS payments cost the state of Oregon around $4 billion a year—more than half what we spend on schools ($7.2 billion)—it’s time to reexamine our priorities.

 

Conclusion

This isn’t the first time a newspaper has tried to attack teachers in order to explain where school funding goes, and it won’t be the last. Unfortunately, we’re an easy target: a large group of public workers that have a union to protect them, with salaries and benefits that can be made to seem generous to those unfamiliar with the challenging intricacies of operating an efficient and well-managed classroom.

And let’s face it, we’re not getting the kind of results we’d like to get in the only two ways anyone seems to care about measuring schools: graduation rates and test results. Oregon’s graduation rate is the lowest in the country (though Idaho doesn’t measure), and our test scores aren’t as high as anyone would like them to be.

But perhaps we ought to ask an important question in that regard: are those results solely the responsibility of classroom teachers? The simple answer is no. In terms of graduation, our schools invent classes a well-watered plant could pass, with as much intervention and help as we can provide given our financial limitations. So if a students—and their parents—has any gumption whatsoever, if they care about graduating high school in even the smallest capacity, they’ll graduate.

The truth is that too many of Oregon’s parents and students don’t care, and we don’t hold them accountable. Oregon has one of the highest rates of absenteeism in the country, a convenient fact that was also omitted in the WW piece, and that’s not the fault or responsibility of schools and teachers: that’s a parent’s responsibility. To put it simply: if kids don’t show up for school on a somewhat regular basis, they’re probably not going to graduate.

As for test scores, it’s more complicated, but there are two facts to consider here:

1) Students of parents with the highest combined level of wealth and education score the highest on standardized tests;

2) The next best predictor of how students score on these tests is the quality of instruction, in other words, their teachers.

In regard to the first fact, much of the conversation about test scores has to center on poverty. Kids in poverty don’t score well on tests, and it’s not hard, if we think about it, to understand why. Living in an unstable home, not knowing where your next meal is coming from, moving from place to place, and all the other characteristics we know about people living in poverty, don’t lend themselves to kids doing well in school. So if we’re really so concerned about test scores, the first thing we ought to do is set about eradicating poverty.

As far as the second factor, I’m not going to lie and say that every single teacher in Oregon is a wonderful expert. It’s a fact: there are still bad teachers in some of our classrooms (though the fact we’re required to have a Master’s degree in order to practice for any length of time makes it less likely).

What we need to keep in mind, however, is that the number probably isn’t much more than 5%, which makes education no different than any other profession: some people suck at their job, and the more quickly they can be gotten rid of the better.

However, one of the big reasons we don’t get more truly brilliant and passionate teachers, is that newspapers like Willamette Week and journalists like Nigel Jaquiss publish articles like “Feed the Beast.” Instead of asking why we don’t expand the school year and pay teachers more, our society and media regularly attacks teachers, almost absurdly so, for making pretty modest salaries doing a really difficult and important job.

Indeed, why would any of the students who’ve grown up in Oregon during the last few years want to be teachers? Their school years have been cut short, they’ve been placed in classrooms with more and more students, and some of their best teachers have been laid off due to budget cuts. Plus, in the echo chamber, every major newspaper in the city of Portland takes every opportunity to attack teachers and teachers’ unions, along with Fox News, right wing media, and the entire Republican Party.

It’s true: Oregon’s system of financing education is messy and problematic. But that’s not because classroom teachers make too much money. Indeed, I’d ask Jaquiss, Willamette Week, and anyone who supports the Republican Party a simple question: what kind of society do you expect to have if we pay teachers as little as possible and drag them through the mud every time there’s not enough money?

Keep it up then, and we’re bound to find out.

About The Author: Jay Scott

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