Commentary

What state lawmakers should learn from the Portland teachers strike

November 28, 2023 5:30 am
Hundreds of educators, parents and students joined a rally Nov. 1. 2023 at Roosevelt High School in northeast Portland to support striking teachers who want better pay, smaller class sizes and more planning time among other demands. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Portland teachers picketed outside schools for more than three weeks until the strike was resolved. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Portland teachers strike sent a message to state lawmakers who hold the purse strings for Portland and the state’s other 196 school districts: You can’t keep writing checks for our schools without getting more involved in how those checks are spent.

Portland teachers managed to force changes in the district’s budget, boosting their salaries and highlighting the issue of unmanageable class sizes. But they had no way to deal with the state’s K-12 budget, which became the immovable object at the bargaining table and set the non-negotiable dollar limits for any settlement. 

The Portland strike exposed the illusion of local control in our K-12 system. And it has set the stage for a reckoning with the dysfunction that results from the split-level governance of our schools in budgeting, bargaining and managing for results in our kids’ classrooms.

Budget documents show that roughly two-thirds of school funding comes from the state (income taxes and lottery receipts) and the other third from local districts (property taxes). But that’s misleading. The Legislature controls both its own allocation to the State School Fund and the distribution of local school districts’ property tax revenue, by equalizing funding across all districts. 

With the exception of some local option levies and bonds for capital projects, every local school district budget is set by the state. In effect, the 90 members of the Legislature function as a super school board, telling their underlings what they have to spend while remaining at arms’ length from the consequences of underfunding or underperformance in our schools. 

That arms’ length relationship was called out by the Portland teachers, when the union blamed the Legislature for its failure to provide enough funding for a reasonable settlement. Portland lawmakers countered that they had sweetened the school funding pot above what’s called the “current service level.” But that pot was built on assumptions that failed to recognize the inflationary pressures on salaries in today’s economy. And there was nothing that the teachers and administrators in Portland could do to remedy that failure but argue over competing shares of the hand they were dealt by the Legislature.

To a large extent, all negotiations in the public sector are a struggle over budgeting and bargaining. And when the Legislature has the largest role in the school budgeting process, it shouldn’t expect to remain aloof from the impacts of its decisions on local bargaining as well. 

The Portland strike exposed the illusion of local control in our K-12 system. And it has set the stage for a reckoning with the dysfunction that results from the split-level governance of our schools in budgeting, bargaining and managing for results in our kids’ classrooms.

Other states have tackled this problem with some form of statewide bargaining for teachers, either for minimum starting salaries (12 states) or full salary schedules (Hawaii). That idea remains a hard sell for the state teachers union, which has liked getting two bites of the apple by lobbying for dollars at the state level and bargaining for their shares in local districts. But that second bite became a bitter one in Portland this year. And the strike that followed makes the case for reforms of the state’s funding practices to make explicit what amount is intended for teacher compensation when lawmakers approve the massive K-12 budget.

Still, the Portland strike wasn’t just about the traditional bargaining subjects of wages, hours and working conditions. It was also about shared governance with an elected school board, which can all too easily exacerbate the conflict between budgeting and bargaining.

Class size can be cast as an issue of working conditions. But it rests on staffing levels, which can only be determined in an overall budget with agreed-upon labor costs. That’s the chicken-and-egg problem with budgeting and bargaining. 

This is another issue for the Legislature, which sets the scope and processes for public sector bargaining in Oregon. In the 1990s, lawmakers eliminated an obligation to take bargaining disputes to a neutral factfinder, prior to allowing a union to strike or a district to impose its final offer. This was done to speed up the bargaining process. But, without that requirement, we saw wildly conflicting assertions about the district’s ability to meet the teachers demands in Portland. In one case, the union didn’t even bother to put cost estimates on one of its major proposals. 

As local unions press for more say in budgeting, they are going to have to deal with the full financial impacts of their demands, including the total compensation costs that affect staffing levels and the downstream impact of big-ticket items like retirement benefits. Both unions and school boards will need to dig into a district’s spreadsheets to establish a shared reality for short-term budgeting and far-sighted decision-making. 

Fact finding can help in this process; restoring it as a touchstone in public sector bargaining ought to be one of lawmakers’ first responses to the Portland experience.

In the end, Portland teachers clearly felt empowered by their strike, not just because of what they gained, but also because of the unity they forged among themselves and the level of support they enjoyed from the public. That feeling will carry forward in Portland and ripple across the state’s other districts, where labor contracts remain unsettled and school boards like Salem-Keizer are planning staff layoffs before the end of the school year.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Salem are wondering how their best budget ever for Oregon schools ended in such turmoil. And it’s not going to get better, until they take more responsibility for a K-12 system whose funding they control and whose challenges at the district level are, like it or not, their problems to solve as well.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.

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