Teacher strike: Unions at risk of public backlash

By William MacKenzie,

Portland, Oregon, long a bastion of anything-goes progressivism, can’t take this strike much longer.

Facts are stubborn things. A city still recovering from the pandemic, buffeted by economic uncertainty and battered by homelessness, proliferating graffiti, rampant drug use and crime, simply can’t afford to keep its kids home.

The union says it’s fighting for the children, but they will have missed 14 days of classes by Thanksgiving and may miss more.

This in a district which is already struggling with high rates of student absenteeism. In the 2022-2023 school year, 36.4% of the district’s students were “chronically absent”, absent for more than 10% of the academic year. Chronic absentee rates were 52.9% for Black/African American students, 48% for Hispanic/Latino students, 66.1% for American Indian/Alaska Native students, 59.9% for Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 31.4% for white students and 22.7% for Asian students.

“The fact that absenteeism has gone up is the biggest issue right now and has been overlooked,” says the Lewis-Sebring Director of the UChicago Consortium on School Research, Elaine Allensworth. “People keep focusing on the test scores, but our research shows over and over again that student attendance is an incredibly strong predictor of pretty much every outcome you care about: High school graduation, college ready, college enrollment, college graduation. It’s vital that students actually come to school every day.”

And then there’s the performance of Portland Public Schools kids on state subject competency tests, likely already exacerbated by high absenteeism. Although mostly better than statewide results, they are still disappointing, often showing declining scores as children move through the system.

At Portland’s elementary schools, for example, 56% of tested students met or exceeded state standards in math in the 3rd grade in 2023, while just 40% met or exceeded state standards in the 8thth grade, 55% met or exceeded English standards in the 3rd grade compared with 54% in the 8th grade and 44% met the standards in science in the 5th grade versus 38% in the 8th grade.

At the district’s high schools, just 27of 11th graders met or exceeded state standards in Math, 50% met or exceeded the standards in English and 39% met or exceeded the standards in science.

Of course, all this probably matters less now that the State Board of Education unanimously voted to extend the 2021 law that paused a requirement that Oregon students show proficiency in Essential Learning Skills in order to graduate.

The District’s teachers also need to confront a public perception that a massive amount of money is already being plowed into the troubled system.

Taxpayers are already spending an astronomical amount to support Portland Public Schools, as I pointed earlier this year in The Cost of Sending Kids to Portland Public Schools is More Than You Think, a Lot More. The commonly used number for spending per student is $15,000, but that’s actually way off. All funds available to the District in the 2022-23 school year totaled $1.9 billion. Divide that by 41,470 students and per student expenditures came out to $45,533.

And that was more than the District spent per student in the 2021-22 school year, even though the number of students served declined. In the fall of 2021, the District enrolled 45,005 students in grades K-12, a decrease of 1,932 students from fall 2020. The net loss was even greater than the previous year’s loss of 1,716 students.

A recent “Portland Public Schools Enrollment Forecast” by Portland State University’s Population Research Center projected that the District’s enrollment will likely continue to fall throughout most of the forecast’s horizon, declining to a low of 39,123 in 2035-36.

How can the union expect spending to keep increasing in the face of enrollment declines.

Portland residents also aren’t likely to look more favorably on higher taxes or fees to help the district as the strike continues.  Portland’s income tax rate of 14.7% for earners is already second only to New York City, largely because of resident’s previous misguided willingness to support innumerable feel-good programs. Portland’s rate is even more punitive when you consider that an individual hits that high earner mark in Portland at $125,000, while a New York taxpayer would have to earn $25 million.

The Portland Metro Chamber recently noted that total taxes paid by businesses located in the City of Portland increased by about one-third, or from $781 million to $1.031 billion, just from 2019 to 2021, according to calculations by the global tax consultancy Ernst & Young.

Key changes during that three-year period, included implementation of a gross receipts tax for the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a property tax to fund city parks, a rate increase in the Multnomah County business tax, an income tax to support Preschool for All (paid in part by sole proprietors), property taxes for Multnomah County library renovations, and new business and personal taxes associated with Metro’s Supportive Housing Services measure.

The Preschool for All program, for example, is funded by a personal income tax based on the following thresholds:

  • Single taxpayers. All Oregon taxable income over $125,000 is taxed at 1.5%. All income above $250,000 is taxed at 3%. In 2026, the tax rate increases by 0.8%
  • Joint filers. All Oregon taxable income over $200,000 is taxed at 1.5%. All income above $400,000 is taxed at 3%. In 2026, the tax rate increases by 0.8%.

“Portland’s higher level of business taxation dates to the enactment of corporate income taxes levied by the City of Portland and Multnomah County in 1981,” the Chamber said. “ These local-level business income taxes are not common in other cities across the U.S.”

If the Portland Association of Teachers hopes to come out of this with continuing public support, teachers need to get back too work and kids need to get back in class. Parent and student patience is not inexhaustible.