I’ve been back in the classroom for the last few months, substitute teaching in a few districts in East Portland. It’s been an eye-opening experience to say the least. I knew things were bad, but what I’ve seen over the last couple of months has genuinely shocked me at every turn. The bottom line is this: Despite the best efforts of amazing and dedicated educators throughout the state, public education in Oregon is collapsing. That is not hyperbole. This state is in the middle of an emergency, and the people who govern us are either actively aiding and abetting that emergency or pretending it doesn’t exist.
At all grade levels, classes of more than 30 students are not just an occasional problem – they are the norm. Classes over 40 students are not uncommon, nor has it been uncommon for me to work for a teacher who has over 200 students in their classroom over the course of the day. In this situation, it is literally impossible for teachers to give students the individual attention that they need. This is starting at the earliest grade levels, and the effects are compounding. Ask a teacher of any grade and they will tell you that students are coming to them each year with less knowledge, fewer skills, and more social problems than ever before. As someone who is deeply skeptical of anyone who walk around complaining about “kids these days,” I am here to tell you: They are not making this up. These students have been corralled through this deeply inadequate system year after year, with higher and higher expectations foisted upon them at every turn. These kids aren’t dumb! Amidst all of this chaos, they are starting to call it for what it is: Complete bullshit. They are acting out, they are acting up. You would too if you were them.
In the face of all of this, in the midst of a supposed economic recovery, school districts across the state are cutting staff, cutting services, farming out substitute teaching, bus driving, and other vital services to private companies, and otherwise doing a disservice to students who have already been pushed to the brink over the past three decades. Next year will be worse than this year, and the year after worse than that. When we hit the next recession? Forget about it. It’s game over.
For the last couple months of the school year, I’ve been teaching 6th grade Science at a great middle school with great teachers in a tough district. All of my classes have over 30 students in them – these are 6th graders, mind you. On my first day, each of my classes involved students chasing each other, desks flipping over, food being thrown, even a student who vomited – on purpose – in order to cause chaos and force me to clear the room. In classes of that size, not knowing names and with a general rebellion on my hands, I was un-moored from everything I’ve ever learned about what it means to be a teacher. I was just weathering the storm, watching the clock. It was an incredibly demoralizing experience.
Since then, things have calmed down, but it’s still hard. From the beginning, it’s been clear that my number one goal is to manage student bodies – with that many 12 year-olds in a room, you literally have no choice in the matter. Get them in their seat, keep them in their seat, keep their hands off of each other, make sure no one is leaving while my back is turned, make sure no one is using the sink in the back, make sure no one is on their phone. The students have been telling the principal that I’m really strict, which is the last thing I thought anyone would ever say about me – but it’s a matter of absolute necessity under these circumstances. I’ve become THAT teacher, the one I hated in school, the one with arbitrary rules, the one who doesn’t have time for the students who are falling behind, the one who snaps at students who ask a question at the wrong time. As for student learning, it HAS to be secondary to managing bodies. Without the latter, the former would never happen. It’s not a great position to be in.
Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a difficult job because these kids are awful humans, or because their parents are bad at parenting. We’ve put them in a literally impossible position. It’s already objectively insane to ask 12-year olds to sit at a desk, inside, and focus on learning for six hours a day; limited to a total of 30 minutes for recess and lunch combined. To do so with 34 of their peers, with little to no individual support is the most ludicrous thing I can possibly imagine. And that’s what they’ve been dealing with since they started school! Of COURSE they are acting out. Of COURSE they are chomping at the bit to get out of their seats, all day. Of COURSE they are crying out for attention in the sea of bodies we are forcing them to swim in all day. Of COURSE they’re going to expend some of their excess energy in insane ways any time a substitute teacher they’ve never met comes into the room and tells them what to do. Any 12 year-old would be doing the same thing – I know for a fact that I would have.
I’m finishing out the school year for another teacher, who was finishing out the school year for another teacher – making me the third teacher that these students have had this year. At least once a day a student asks me “are you going to quit too?” But I’m coming in with fresh legs, seeing other teachers who have been worn down by this broken system over the course of the year. I bonded immediately with them because we are all suffering through a kind of mutual trauma each day. We’ve been placed in an impossible position, communing with hundreds of students who are in an equally impossible position, being asked to get them up to speed even though almost all of them are already several grade-levels behind because of the system we are asking them to navigate, because of the impossible circumstances that they have somehow endured thus far. The teachers around me are amazing, and they’ve been enduring this collapse far longer than I have, seeing the change in students year after year, dealing with larger classes year after year, having their jobs hanging in the balance every time a new round of cuts come around. And yet there they stay, weathering the storm.
The worst thing about witnessing all of this is knowing full well that it hasn’t happened by accident. Politics in Oregon are notoriously constrained by archaic Republican measures put in place in the 80s and 90s designed to make it nearly impossible to for the government to do anything productive – super-majorities are required to raise taxes, which can subsequently be referred to the ballot for a popular vote. If the state raises more money in a given year than they anticipated, that extra money is sent back to the taxpayers, preventing good accounting from actually taking place. Property tax increases have been capped each year, meaning revenue will literally never keep up with demand. To add to this slow bleed, the state has saddled local districts and municipalities with the the burden of paying for a pension program that they put in place, forcing school districts to pay ever-increasing costs for current retirees at the expense of current services. In short, schools are being bled dry from every angle, and its the students and teachers who are suffering. I cannot emphasize this enough: This has always been the goal: to destroy public education and push parents who have the means into private, for-profit schools. We are seeing the plan work exactly as it was intended to.
Republicans are more than happy with this situation – they’ll cry about PERS reform with the full knowledge that every penny owed to current retirees will be paid while they’re busy dismantling benefits for future employees. For Democrats – who have been poisoned by corporate cash and a desire to “compromise” with people who believe in things that are actively evil – the last few years has been a perfect situation for them: They’ve been able to win elections while fervently pretending that they have their hands tied behind their backs. They’ve been able to engage in their preferred mode of governing – tweaking around the edges, rearranging the deck chairs, allowing the water to slowly come to a boil as they dither on and on as their corporate backers prefer. Their motto has always been “We’d love to help you, but we can’t, ” the electoral equivalent of calling a customer service number and having a machine tell you that your call is important. On the surface, they’ll tell you that they believe in the “politics of the possible,” which is a fancy way of saying that they don’t ever want to mention any kind of vision that they can’t guarantee will pass in the next 30 days. This means that they have developed no long-term plans, no platform, no theory of governing. They have no vision, they have no beliefs, and they fundamentally think things are actually pretty good. Governor Kate Brown is the perfect embodiment of this ethos – the Governor who backed her way into office by throwing her predecessor under the bus and has subsequently governed with a distinct lack of vision for four years,garnering no accomplishments and doing absolutely nothing of note during her time in office. She’s the perfect Democrat – one who believes in the status quo, who doesn’t want to put her neck on the line, who probably couldn’t even tell you why she wanted to be Governor in the first place if you asked.
Then the unexpected happened: Last November, Democrats in Oregon encountered their nightmare scenario, winning super-majorities in both chambers and the governorship – enough power to permanently break the logjam and undo the damage that Republicans wrought back in the 80s and 90s. Having never developed a plan for this scenario, having never intended to actually represent their voters, this newfound power has been a real hot potato for them. This entire legislative session they’ve been trying to run out the clock, passing things like statewide rent control that seem great at first, but turn out to be nothing-burgers or even actively bad upon further scrutiny. They’re all just biding their time until the next election, hoping that Republicans can win enough seats to unburden them from the responsibility of having to govern. It’s clear now that they’ve always preferred the artificial constraints imposed upon them by previous Republican legislatures, and they’re anxious to be back in a place where those things can be a catch-all excuse for their persistent moral failures.
Despite their hatred of governing, Democrats did recognize that they had to do SOMETHING about school funding during this legislative session. With super-majorities, they needed only to keep their own counsel and come up with a plan that served their constituents and mobilized their base, right? So of course, the first thing they decided to do was seek the input of… Republicans (?) to craft a new funding package for schools. Once they finished that, they earned some big-time corporate sponsorships. (??????) After that, they entered new negotiations with Oregon Business and Industry. (?????????) At each of these stages, the bill was watered down further and made more complicated. At each stage it became more difficult to understand what any of the authors of the bill were actually trying to accomplish. With each compromise, Democrats earned brownie points and little else. And just in case there was any doubt about whose side they were actually on, our erstwhile Governor simultaneously introduced a plan to literally cut teacher salaries to help deal with pension costs – a move designed to further curry favor with corporate interests.
The result of all of this is a bill called the Student Success Act, which is literally impossible to understand, whose benefits cannot be explained and likely won’t even be seen for several years anyways. The money might provide some relief somewhere down the road, but no one can really explain how or when. In terms of mobilizing any kind of political energy, it seems to be designed to do the opposite. The state Teacher’s Union seems to have gotten behind it, and I’m getting all kinds of ads on Twitter and Facebook from shadowy groups who seem to support it, but it’s clear that it doesn’t do anything to fix the IMMEDIATE problems that EVERY educator is facing in their classroom RIGHT NOW. And if you need a two-day conference to explain how it *might* help in the future, you probably fucked up your bill.
But hey, at least after ALL of that time spent compromising, seeking input from the other side, giving up the farm for Republican and Corporate buy-in, Democrats won’t have to worry about any opposition, right? HA. Actually, the totally predictable has happened: Republicans are bringing out the big guns: Going all fire and brimstone against the bill that has been watered down ostensibly to garner their support. They’re shutting down the state Senate in order to get MORE concessions from Democrats. And those Corporate interests who promised to remain “neutral” on the bill in exchange for even more concessions? I’ll bet you good money they’ll still organize enough signatures to get the measure referred to the ballot even if it does pass. And when this arcane bill – this magical gear-box filled with so many compromises that no one can actually sum it up in any kind of convincing way – is put before the voters, it will be attacked relentlessly as a “sales tax” and will fail because it’s ALWAYS easier for the enemies of complicated legislation to define that legislation than it is for the proponents. Oregon has some recent history with this. We should know better.
So. I’m walking out tomorrow. I’ll be marching with the rest of Portland’s teachers on the waterfront, joining my peers while knowing full well that powers that be are busy attempting to funnel that enormous energy for change into something that’s pallatable to the very people who seek to destroy us and what we do. Knowing full well that the next election cycle will probably bring me yet another choice between a Republican who is actively against me and a Democrat who pretends they can’t do anything to help me. Knowing full well that things will probably get worse before they get better. I’ll march because I don’t know what else to do.