Unrecognizable Schools

The public education experience has changed

I am a product of Oregon’s school funding crisis.

I was in first grade when Oregon voters approved Measure 5, the constitutional amendment that shifted the financing of public education from local communities to the state by capping property taxes in Oregon. For the next 12 years I saw my education opportunities diminish as teachers and school programs were continuously cut because of inadequate funding from the state.

As a teacher in the Bethel School District for the past seven years, I am struggling on the other end of the crisis to provide an adequate education to a new generation of Oregonians with even less educational opportunity than was provided to me.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

When this controversial ballot initiative was passed in 1990, it was intended to relieve Oregonians of high property taxes while promising adequate replacement money from the state. I was in first grade at Yolanda Elementary School in Springfield when Measure 5 passed. The pinch wasn’t felt initially, but was more like slowly boiling a cauldron of crabs. Class sizes slowly began to increase. Field trips were reduced.

By the time I entered sixth grade at Briggs Middle School, the week-long Outdoor School had been eliminated. The next year, all after-school athletics were slashed throughout the district for middle school students.

When I entered Thurston High School it was not uncommon to have more than 30 students in a class, a seemingly low number by today’s standards. As a result, I began to feel resentful of a generation of people who got to have a public school experience that was no longer an option for me.

As a college student I watched the cost of higher education increase at a ridiculous rate as universities hiked tuition to make up for reduced state funding. If a college education is a ticket into the middle class, it comes at such a cost that those who go into debt to finance it feel like they are paying back a modern form of indentured servitude. You trade your time and money for access and privilege.

While I might have enjoyed the dying embers of what was once a cornerstone of the so-called American Dream, public education today is likely unrecognizable to anyone who graduated before Measure 5 passed in 1990.

I have taught at Cascade Middle School in the Bethel School District for seven years. In 2011, I had 37 seventh graders in my reading class every morning at 8 am. It was tremendously challenging to get to know each student because of the sheer volume of people. All of the classes I taught that year had more than 30 students, and I started to question whether remaining in the teaching profession was a viable career option. Was I making a difference, or was I spread too thin?

Last year, one of my colleagues came in on the first day of school in tears. She had just dropped off her daughter in a classroom of 38 first graders at Irving Elementary. The classroom across the hall was vacant because of budget cuts and had been converted into a coat closet for the obscene amount of students who now occupied a room built for 20 learners.

This year, my friend at Meadow View has 39 fourth graders in her classroom. Can you imagine inviting 39 fourth graders to your house for a birthday party? It’s absurd! And yet stories like this are not uncommon in Oregon.

It all comes down to dollars. If Oregon wants to return to its pre-Measure 5 level of funding, we would have to invest an additional $2 billion just to get back to where we were. It’s not that the dollars aren’t out there. But we Oregonians will need to make some tough choices if we want to improve the quality of education that we provide to our citizens.

Will we stay the course like we have been for the past two decades? Or will we return to an adequate level of funding that we haven’t seen for decades? If the concept of generational equity makes any sense, the choice is clear. — Peter Bauer

This column is the first in an occasional series looking at the challenges facing our local K-12 public education system today.

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