I could have titled this post “Learning By Happenstance,” because I happened on an announcement about a town hall regarding education cuts in Oregon and decided to go.
It was an eye-opener, to say the least, especially for someone trying to make sense of a completely new education system.
What I learned:
Two pieces of Oregon legislation dramatically changed the course of the public schools, beginning in 1990. In 1990, anti-tax activists championed Measure 5, which limits non-school property taxes. Then, in 1997, voters passed Measure 50, which rolled back property assessments by 10 percent and limited the annual rate of assessment increases to 3 percent (1). Here’s the bottom line:
“According to the October 2006 issue of Oregon Business, the first sixteen years of Measure 5 and Measure 50 reduced local revenues by $41 billion.”
The state’s Basic School Support Fund (fulfilled primarily from the state’s general fund) make up difference. The share of the state’s general fund going to the Basic School Support Fun increased, to a high of almost 71 percent in 1998-1999. (The recession in 2009 brought the number down to 63 percent.)
So, property taxes have dropped. But other public services are squeezed, notably, higher education. The state has greater control over local budgets, and the income tax becomes more important to education funding.
“In 2011, a state legislative panel found that Measures 5 and 50 were the foremost explanation of why funding for K-12 schools fell more tan $3 billion short of the amount needed to meet state goals. “
That’s $3 billion.
So when the state’s projected budget shortfall of $1.8 billion (that’s billion) recently went public, it was inevitable that schools would be hit hard.
They’ve been dealt a body blow of a magnitude that has left parents and educators reeling.
Oregon already has the shortest school year in the country. (It’s estimated that each cut school day can save a district $5000,000.) At the town hall, parents and teachers stepped forward to share what that has meant and will mean in the daily lives of children and teachers.
- One high-poverty district will cut 10 elementary school teachers and 10 days from the school calendar. The teacher who shared that information will also see her position cut. She has worked with K-1 students to improve their social-emotional development; in one year, she saw young ones who couldn’t function in school able to sit in a classroom, talk about and resolve difficult interactions. (By “not function”, she meant they couldn’t talk about how they felt so would bite each other, or slept in the hallways.) “School is where these children are getting their needs me, but the school is struggling to meet them,” she said, citing increasing burnout levels among teachers.
- “We are always one person short” of whatever essential task needs attention, said one teacher. Everyone in the school, from administrators to teachers to support staff, wears more than one hat. “We are a social justice school, but it is impossible to create social justice when we are so consistently underserved,” said the teacher.
- A parent who also frequently works as an elementary substitute teacher described the “evisceration” of public schools she has witnessed. She described a 1st grader in a clip on bowtie on his first day of school last week. It was his first day in his 11th school this year. The social worker in that school told her that 80% of students did not have a proper bed to sleep in at night; they lived in shelters or elsewhere. Housing insecurity, poverty, addiction– all are taking an increasing toll on families.
- One third grade teacher reported that next year, her school will lose
- 2 teahcers
- a Full-time librarian
- their half of a part-time PE teacher
- a vice principal
- there are 50 special ed students in her school and one special ed teacher. There is no reading specialist.
- One teacher reported outright discrimination in the way enrollment is handled in higher-level classes (AP, etc.). These classes, which are legally supposed to be open to any student on teacher recommendation, have in some instances become by student application.
- One school district has no band until 7th grade. No fourth year of foreign language in high school. No certified librarians. One middle school was closed, not because of declining enrollment, but to save money– the 6th graders were sent back to their elementary schools.
- One elementary school once had music and PE twice a week, then library with a certified librarian once a week. Now they have PE once a week. This is after no PE for 6 years. There is no full-time PE teacher. There used to be a certified librarian in every school library. Now there is one for the entire district.
Story after story, cut after cut. It was notable that social services and mental health, the services that could help stabilize the precarious lives of increasingly impoverished children, were all being slashed. This is an area where gentrification is gobbling affordable housing and pushes families to the fringes of the areas they once called home. “If we have the personnel to manage one student in crisis, what do we do when there are four? Who do we choose?” asked one social worker.
Class sizes will be affected, of course, because how could they not be when positions are eliminated?
This is just a sampling of only half the testimony from the town hall. I have very little to say– my mouth is still hanging open.
I have no quick and breezy affirmation of the resilience of children or the dedication of educators. I have no optimistic predictions. With the listing of a cut came stories of individual children and young adults whose lives will never be the same. Of teachers pushed to their limits. It is truly awful.
In a little while, I’m headed off to my first Board of Ed meeting.
I have a very real sense of public education as I have known it coming to an end.
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adjective Extremely surprised: gobsmacked at the nomination
[1980s+; fr gob,”mouth,”and smacked, ”hit, struck,” the theatrical gesture of clapping a hand over the mouth as a gesture of extreme surprise]