Strikes are highlighting the real issue: Oregon needs to reform school funding

By Rachel Gowland of Eugene, OR. Rachel is the tuition and affordability director for the University of Oregon student government, and the fundraising chair for the UO College Democrats.

It is official: Portland teachers have now voted to authorize a strike, and Medford teachers have already been striking for a few days. As is widely known, Portland teachers are pushing for smaller class sizes; in Medford teachers are fighting for adequate preparation time. I think we can all agree that these are reasonable requests for our teachers to be making and that the respective school boards should listen and cooperate. With regards to these contract negotiations, however, the point that I wish to make is a little bit larger.

Once settled, the educational standards determined by these contracts are not an isolated 'Portland' issue, nor is the strike occurring in Medford only about Medford teachers and classrooms. These conflicts set precedent for education standards throughout Oregon. Teachers in both Medford and Portland have made it very clear that being given the tools to educate students well is their priority. They are both fighting against declining standards brought on by larger class sizes and less preparation time, which is a statewide problem. What is more, both the Medford and Portland teachers' unions have demonstrated the willingness to resort to a strike in order to achieve their goals. They are undoubtedly setting an example for how other teachers and school boards will negotiate contracts across the state in the future.

Not only is this a statewide issue, it is an issue that transcends education at the K-12 level. As a senior and student leader at the University of Oregon, I can personally attest to the barriers to a college education not only for students on my campus, but for students across the state. The hurdles that we face, such as a lack of preparedness and diversity on campus, do not begin at Freshman Orientation. They begin in kindergarten.

Fifty student classrooms and overexerted teachers are factors that will decrease the number of students who qualify to go to college, and the students who do get accepted will be under-prepared. Only the students who have additional resources to compensate will get ahead. Thus far, this conversation ignores the fact that the past few legislative sessions have been dominated by questions of funding for universities and elementary schools alike.

Anyone concerned with private governing boards (a band-aid at best) or the development of Pay It Forward (an innovative new idea for funding Higher Ed) should be alarmed by what is happening in Medford and Portland.

Finally, these strikes are drawing attention to a problem that is ultimately too big to be solved simply by settling contracts.

However, the idea that teachers are or will be packing up their personal belongings and vacating their classrooms in not one, but two Oregon cities is troubling. After facing years of divestment in their classrooms, our elementary and high school teachers are finally saying enough is enough. It should be noted that Medford and Portland teachers are simultaneously going on strike only one year after our institutions of higher education were restructured largely for the purpose of finding more revenue.

These strikes should cause us to stop and consider just how bad things have really gotten.

Striking Oregon teachers will never fix the system, though they have certainly brought attention to the massive leak in the proverbial pipe. Realistically, the only solution is for taxpayers to enact broad reform that will adequately fund education at every level. Medford and Portland teachers are speaking up. I, for one, support them.

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