Portland Students Support Teacher Contract Demands, Fight for Quality Schools

DSC_1453Story and photos by Pete Shaw

As the Portland Public Schools (PPS) Board of Education–with the notable exception of Board member Steve Buel–tries to ram a contract down the throats of the teachers, the students have a message for them: teachers’ working conditions are our learning conditions. The recent push for school reform, at least that promoted by both Democrats and Republicans who are walking hand in hand with corporations who see education as the next great cash cow, does not view students and teachers as integral components of vibrant civil society, but as inputs leading to greater profits. That corporate attitude has already reached PPS with its attention toward standardized testing, an emphasis that judges schools by how well students perform on these tests rather than how they have developed as a whole student. Likewise, teachers are judged by how well their students perform on these tests rather than how they use their creativity and skills to create the personalized instruction students really need.

On Friday November 15th, students gathered outside Cleveland High School to rally in support of their teachers as well as the rest of Portland’s teachers. Demanding a contract that respects educators–and thereby one that respects them–the students stood in solidarity with their instructors against the corporate, profit-driven model of education currently embraced by the PPS Board.

Ian Jackson, CHS senior told his fellow students, “Every time they make cutbacks in the teachers’ contract, they make cutbacks in the student contract.”

The School Board has been pursuing what it describes as an “aggressive” strategy in contract negotiations. It dovetails perfectly with the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top program which is an extension of the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind in that it proposes market based solutions for public education problems, promoting competition between schools fighting for the all too scarce dollars set aside for schools. And as a for-profit venture, it includes the requisite attack on public workers. It is certainly odd seeing PPS administrators claiming to have students best interests at heart while attacking teachers who are clearly students closest allies in gaining an education. Can any proposal that claims to be about improving education, but focuses on attacking teachers, be taken seriously?

The answer appears to be, “Yes.” While PPS–which on November 20th declared an impasse in negotiations, an action that the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) stated sent “a clear message that they (the Portland School Board) would rather force a strike and shut the school doors on our students than work together with teachers”–claims the contract it is offering teachers reflects its concern for students, the reality appears different. For starters, the Board has refused to negotiate directly with the PAT. Instead, it is willing only to have closed door mediation where it does not have to meet with the teachers’ bargaining team.

That is the concern the PPS Board has for its students: it will not negotiate directly with the people who provide instruction for the students. Instead, these Board members and administrators, who do not work in classrooms with students, will be forcing a contract detailing what goes on in classrooms upon those who actually do work and learn in them.

Furthermore, the District refuses to discuss many of the key points of the contract put forth by the PAT, outside issues of wages and benefits, which have largely been the focus of the corporate media. For example, teachers have insisted that instead of being micromanaged, they should be directly involved in choosing what methods and materials they use when teaching. Not every student learns the same way, and thus not every student can be taught the same way. That should be obvious, but with such an emphasis on standardized testing–not as one of many tools to assess student learning, but as the primary one–teachers are pushed into teaching students to pass the test instead of garnering information and learning how to use it.

Class size? PPS wants to eliminate the language in the current contract that limits class size. Increasing access to art, music, and physical education classes? PPS refuses to discuss this with the PAT bargaining team.  Prep time?  Is that really necessary?

Zoe La Du, a junior at CHS said, “We’ve grown up in these classrooms. We’re practically raised here and the generations to come will be raised in these classrooms as well. Our futures are heavily determined by what goes on inside these buildings. What the District likes to call unit members are the people entrusted with educating the future of this country. All the District cares about is face value. What happens when PPS starts treating teachers and students not as humans but as pawns in their game to earn money and a good name? We lose arts, choir, band, drama. We lose everything that makes school enjoyable. We end up with classes with a minimum of 30 students. We have teachers that are tired, overstressed, and not wanting to teach.”

Kyla, a member of the Cleveland Student Union compared the contract drawn up by PPS to a 180 pound man waking up the next day and finding he weighed 220 pounds. Those extra pounds, she said, represent the extra weight teachers would carry with more students, and which would adversely affect education. “I think the essence of being a good citizen,” she said, “is an opportunity to learn. Tell me PPS, how does a repetitive, isolated, and crowded education system help us?”

Gwen Sullivan, President of the PAT, told the students they were an example of a good education as they had learned “to push back on certain things that shouldn’t be happening.” Sullivan furthermore urged the students to keep fighting, even after the contract dispute has been resolved. “It is up to you to fight for the education you deserve. Fight on after the contract. This is to make sure all students continue to be properly educated.”


To this end the Portland Student Union will be holding a convention on November 22nd that will bring together past and current student activists.

These young people are an impressive sight–and they certainly do not fit the stereotype of today’s students. They are often described as selfish, but they are acting selflessly, coming out not just in support of themselves, but for their teachers and future students. Meanwhile PPS is moving toward imposing a contract on teachers that does not support schools and will likely harm students. Both the students and the PPS Board seem to understand the same thing: schools are not businesses, but rather, are a public good. Unfortunately, unlike the students, the Board sees this as a problem.

“With every cut the district makes, our right to a fair education is being taken away from us,” said La Du. “The struggle for a better education will take time. The first step to getting it back is giving the teachers the contract they demand–a contract that fights for the education students deserve.”

For more information on the Portland Student Union see: facebook.com/portlandstudentunion and portlandstudentunion.wordpress.com.

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