Ominous backdrop to teacher strikes
Portland teachers this week authorized the first strike in Oregon’s largest school district, set to begin Feb. 20 unless the district and union reach a contract agreement.
A teacher strike closed Medford schools Tuesday morning, and the district plans to reopen Tuesday with replacements. Last-ditch contract negotiations failed, and district officials will meet with a state mediator over the weekend seeking an agreement.
Waiting for those stories to play out, I’m reminded of diverse factors in the ongoing struggle to improve public education.
As a state, Oregon has made all manner of missteps over the years in public education requirements, curriculum, funding and other areas of public policy.
It’s almost impossible to find current, completely believable comparisons, but most studies show Oregon in the top quartile of states in average teacher salaries. Combining that with high benefits, Oregon maintains a respectable ranking in funding committed to public education.
If reforms in Oregon’s public retirement system are overturned in the courts, we will be thrust deeper into financial problems for public education.
Student performance analysis also is an elusive field of study. However, Education Week, a national education newspaper, last month ranked Oregon 43rd nationally in “education policies and results.”
“Oregon’s worst-in-the-nation record of improving student achievement in math and its near-worst record of improving students’ reading skills,” reported The Oregonian, “was the main cause of the basement-level rating.”
A 2013 report indicated Oregon students spend an average of 165 days in school, about three weeks fewer than the national average.
Considering all factors, we are tempted to declare Oregon’s public education system as seriously flawed, if not broken. Those challenges don’t stop a great many committed educators from delivering quality education in school settings around the state, but they bode ill for efforts seeking a quick fix to the combined financial/performance struggles in Oregon schools.
Against that backdrop, it will be difficult for Oregonians to feel too warm and fuzzy about potential strikes in Medford and Portland. Of course, diverse concerns with working conditions are cited by unions in those large districts, but in general, threatened teacher strikes come down to pay, benefits and class sizes.
Public education is just one area of Oregon’s social, political and economic climate lagging behind quality of life in many other states. At some point, our enjoyment of mild weather and spectacular scenery needs to be accompanied by improved public policy at all levels.
Jeb Bladine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-687-1223.