School cuts fuel UPSET uprising
Grassroots groups ready a counter attack in fund fight
Grant High School history teacher Don Gavitte jokes that he is one of the three people in the world who hadn't joined Facebook. He hadn't tweeted, led a march, sent a group email or created an uprising of any sort.
He's doing all that now, because he's tired of seeing cuts on top of cuts at his school and across the Portland Public Schools.
"We no longer believe we are providing a decent education for our students," Gavitte says. "We're exhausted.
"The teachers (are upset) by their workload, students by the constant shuffles and deletions and program changes. And parents (are upset) because we're not just fundraising for new playground equipment, to get a new sculpture in the hallway. We're fundraising to keep ourselves whole."
Two weeks ago, Gavitte created a group called UPSET (Underfunded Parents, Students and Educators, Together), originally amongst his fellow teachers at Grant. As the district's largest school, it stands to lose 10 teachers, including two of three Spanish teachers for 1,500 students.
The UPSET leaders are looking for a mass movement across the district. They have their own "mockingjay" of sorts (a la "Hunger Games"); a fifth-grade girl at Chief Joseph Elementary asked the school board at a recent meeting, "What did we do to deserve this?"
The group has adopted her question as a slogan, along with a hand holding an apple core as its logo.
Nearly 300 have signed on to march from Grant High School to Pioneer Courthouse Square on May 11, the Friday before the school board is set to vote on cutting $10.4 million from schools to address the district's $27.5 million budget gap. People are signing up on the group's website (www.sites.google.com/site/upsetaboutyourchoices/home), with the hope of attracting 3,500 to the march -- to fill Pioneer Courthouse Square to capacity.
Gavitte hopes it'll be a rallying cry to the masses.
"No more cuts, no more excuses," he says. "We want to place the emphasis on that and hopefully become a pressure point where 'get upset' means something in this town."
UPSET is steering clear of the politicized discussion around revenue discussions. It's fitting, then, that another effort has formed to do just that.
Ruth Adkins -- wearing her hat as a Southwest Portland mother and longtime schools activist, rather than second-term school board member -- started a group called Invest in Oregon Kids.
She and three other PPS moms who had discussed funding issues on Facebook want to help guide parents who might be new to the game and overwhelmed with the magnitude of the school funding issue -- one of the most complex, nuanced and politically divisive in the state.
"Young parents are coming up and don't know the background," says Adkins. "I'm part of the pooped and pissed older parents. I just want to help create the groundswell."
On the group's blog page (www.investinorkids.wordpress.com), Adkins calls attention to a wonky term to help define the conversation in the world of school funding: QEM, which stands for Quality Education Model.
The QEM was created as a bipartisan effort under then-Gov. John Kitzhaber's direction in 1999 as a base level of funding deemed necessary to achieve quality schools. It was described as an "objective and research-based connection between the resources devoted to schools and levels of student achievement and to guide efforts to fund Oregon schools adequately."
In reality, the QEM has not been met once. This school year, the state set a QEM of $455 million for Portland Public Schools' 2012 school year. Yet the Legislature funded the district at $338 million, a gap of $117 million. The district could get about 35 percent more if it was fully funded.
Collectively, the QEM is a whopping $3 billion short for all districts across the state.
In 2006, six Oregon school districts and parents, on behalf of their children, sued the state and top legislative leaders for not meeting the constitutional mandate to fund public K-12 education to the tune of $3.2 billion during the two biennia from 2003 to 2007.
Oregon's Supreme Court ruled that the Legislature is obligated to fund the state's goals, and failed to follow the Constitution. Yet, the court went on to say that its hands were tied, because if the justices tried to force the Legislature to meet its funding level, it "would interfere with their obligation to issue a report saying whether they'd funded education at the proper level," which is their out, explains Jim Westwood, principal attorney in the lawsuit.
"It was hugely disappointing," he says. "This was the first time ever in the history of the state, to my knowledge, that the Legislature was not complying with the Oregon Constitution."
There's no talk now about further litigation. Grassroots movements under way are hopeful for change in the 2013 legislative session.
They'll be armed with a new set of data. In the past, the QEM differences had been a mystery, unavailable to the public.
Now, for the first time, the data is available on a district-by-district basis -- albeit buried online in Kitzhaber's new Education Achievement Compacts, the major education reform he passed in the 2011 legislative session.
The compacts, which begin this fall, are agreements with every public K-12 through post-secondary school in the state. They include a lofty goal: By 2025, the state aims for 40 percent of adults in Oregon to have earned a bachelor's degree or higher; 40 percent of adults to have earned an associate degree or post-secondary credential; and 20 percent of adults to have earned a high school diploma or equivalent.
Both Adkins and Otto Schell, Oregon PTA's legislative liaison, say the 40/40/20 promise, as it's called, is meaningless without funding attached.
"I don't see how we get there at the rate we're going," says Schell, also a Grant High School parent. "You can't do it on a starvation diet."
The best schools in Portland and Lake Oswego have graduation rates in the 80 percent range, Schell points out, with much of their success boosted by parents' fundraising to backfill cuts.
"You can't aim so high and then stand on the air hose of funding," Schell says. "If you can't figure it out, say that out loud. But we can't wait if we think we're getting kids in 2025 to that high level of achievement."
Ben Cannon, Kitzhaber's education adviser, addresses that charge by changing the language. He stays away from the word "funding" and uses "investments" instead, noting that the state is spending $8 billion on education this biennium, and it continues to be at the center of the governor's agenda.
"The governor and (his appointed Oregon education) investment board believe the state can be more of an active investor and less of a passive funder," he says. "While we certainly recognize the need for increased investment, we want to be as certain as possible to make sure we're reinvesting in ways that'll produce the best outcomes for kids."
The investment board is working to develop Kitzhaber's education budget for the 2013 Legislature, which will "better connect the dots from investments to outcomes," Cannon says.
Schell doesn't agree with the "carrot and stick" approach," as he calls it, of tying funds to vague outcomes like "ready to learn at kindergarten," third-grade reading, sixth-grade attendance, measuring health and high school graduation rates.
"We didn't need the (investment board) to do this -- teachers and principals and leaders know what to do if we provide the support," he says.
'We're going backward'
While the grassroots group organizes the base, it's David Williams' charge to work directly with legislators on behalf of PPS. As the district's lobbyist for the past two years (and an education lobbyist in Oregon since 1999), he feels a new energy.
He made sure that PPS Superintendent Carole Smith made a point of stressing in her budget message that the funding gap is not just a PPS problem, but a statewide problem that stems from the Legislature.
After her April 2 budget message, Williams says he had legislators call him, asking why the district was pinning the problems on them. "I say, 'You're kidding me? You're surprised?' "
Williams says he laid it out starkly: The share of the state general fund and lottery budget for education declined steadily from 2003 to 2011.
The state allocated more dollars to education last year, but in actual dollars, the K-12 schools are set to receive $416 million less than they did four years ago ($5.7 billion in 2011-13 compared to $6.1 billion in 2007-09), and $38 million less than it did in 2009-11, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office.
If the Legislature had maintained the same priority level for schools, PPS and other districts wouldn't be faced with the same level of cuts, Williams says: "We're not just not keeping pace, we're going backward."
Williams is also working to rally at least half of the 200 school superintendents in Oregon who represent about 85 percent of the students in the state, to work on funding solutions together. So far about 25 are involved, from the top 10 largest districts in the state.
Little public clamor?
As he prepares for next legislative session, Williams expects he won't chase another sales tax proposal as a potential revenue stream. He's seen nine incarnations of the ill-fated tax plan, all doomed to failure.
He and other school activists say a ballot measure to repeal the corporate kicker, which is being promoted by union-supported Our Oregon, would provide modest relief for schools, but is just a small financial Band-Aid.
So is reforming the individual kicker provision in the Oregon Constitution, an issue Portland Stand for Children has worked on for the past four years.
Both Williams and Dana Hepper, Stand's advocacy director, say the biggest hope is for more school revenue in the long term is to reform the state's property tax system.
More revenue isn't the only solution, Hepper says. She says Stand will likely advocate for ways to keep costs of public health and safety down, including the cost of health care for teachers.
And, echoing Cannon's message, she says: "We have to work on school funding and simultaneously maximizing how we spend money to the benefit of students."
Cannon says he realizes people are justified in calling for fixes to the system. But he says no one has stormed the governor's office -- yet.
Recently, he says, "I found 400 emails into Kitzhaber related to wolves and cougars, and 12 related to education. I wish that was reversed.
"I wish the Legislature and the governor were hearing that public clamor for education to a much greater extent."
There are a few things Cannon, Schell, Adkins, Hepper, Williams, Gavitte and other education advocates agree on: that there's no magical approach, that any solutions will take many tries, many years and a critical mass of voters.
They all say it's crucial to reach the majority of Portlanders and Oregonians who don't have school-age kids and don't think they have a vested stake in the school system.
As state Rep. Lew Frederick of Northeast Portland likes to put it: "We have to be very deliberate, say this is how we're going to provide a comprehensive education -- not because kids are our future -- but because as I tell kids, I want them very happy with me when I'm choosing my nursing home."