[This commentary was first published in The Portland Tribune.]
In 2018, teacher strikes dominated headlines and Capitol buildings. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado shut down schools, demanding better pay and more resources for education.
Closer to home, teachers in Washington school districts also said “enough is enough,” forming picket lines at the start of the school year.
Though Oregon schools opened without a hitch, it’s important to recognize that teachers in our state face similar challenges. They are underpaid. And they perform demanding work while toiling in poorly funded schools.
Nurturing capable and well-educated children is one of the most important roles of the public sector and one of society’s most important needs. This is why it is a high priority for Oregon lawmakers to find a solution to the underfunding of our schools — including the fact that Oregon teachers are underpaid.
Outside of the family environment, teachers play the most important role in the academic success of children. Research has shown that increasing compensation for teachers has the effect of increasing the supply of quality teachers in schools. Adequate pay leads to better teachers, and higher-quality teachers lead to improved academic achievement for Oregon children.
Improving teacher pay also may attract a more diverse pool of educators, which is an essential element in creating school environments in which students of color can succeed.
Recently, the Oregon Center for Public Policy analyzed the compensation of public-school teachers in Oregon. We found that when compared to private-sector workers with similar attributes — education, age and the like — Oregon’s teachers earn 22 percent less.
Yes, teachers in Oregon generally receive better benefits than private-sector workers. And yes, they are not paid to work during the summer.
Yet even when benefits are incorporated into the equation, the compensation gap persists: Oregon teachers receive weekly compensation 9 percent lower than comparable private-sector workers. To account for teachers’ “summers off,” we calculated compensation on a weekly basis and found that the gap still persists.
In short, Oregon teachers deserve a raise. In this respect, they are not much different from many teachers across the nation. And like teachers elsewhere, Oregon teachers must contend with underfunded schools.
A while back, the Oregon Legislature created a commission tasked with identifying the level of funding needed for Oregon to have a quality education system. Year after year, the commission’s reports have found substantial underfunding of Oregon’s schools, to the detriment of the students sitting in overstuffed classrooms or learning from outdated textbooks.
Its most recent report, released this summer, found the situation persists. The commission reported that Oregon would need an additional $2 billion in the coming budget period to adequately fund Oregon’s K-12 schools.
In the last legislative session, lawmakers created a committee to investigate what Oregon needs to do to ensure student success. The bipartisan group of representatives and senators have toured the state, talking to communities about the condition of their schools. While it’s too early to know what lawmakers will conclude from these meetings, let’s hope they get a clear sense of the level of underfunding of our schools and under-compensation of Oregon teachers.
Where to find more money for schools is, of course, a key question. Some pundits argue for cutting teacher benefits, especially the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS), as a way to free up resources for other educational needs.
Yet cuts to PERS would fall entirely on current teachers. Doing so would exacerbate the under-compensation of teachers and make it harder to attract and retain these professionals.
There is no question, though, that Oregon’s economy has the resources for every child in the state to receive an excellent education. We are a state with a strong economy in the world’s most prosperous nation.
Oregon can afford a top-notch educational system — one that compensates teachers as the essential professionals they are. Our children deserve no less.