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In lieu of potential strike, students in the city of Portland stand up for their teachers and reclaim the education reform narrative in the process.
by George Joseph
People in the “education reform” movement often claim that policy makers must put students’ needs over teachers’ demands. Whether it be Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” lobbying campaign or corporate-sponsored “student activist” groups like Teach for America and Students for Education Reform, education reformers have the gall to claim to do what’s best for students without even taking the time to listen to students on their own terms. But on January 10th, in coordination with students across the Portland, almost two hundred students at Jefferson High School walked out of class in support of their teachers’ battle for a fair contract, shattering the false dichotomy set up between students’ demands and teachers’ needs. In choosing to walk out by themselves for their teachers, students did more than show solidarity; they broke the silence about what education reform really means, taking back their voices in the process.
Since last summer the Portland Association of Teachers has been locked in a battle with the school district over everything ranging from the usual contract struggles for health care benefits and fairer salaries to blatant school quality issues like the district’s attempt to remove class size caps and teacher caseload limits. Only in corporate America could larger classes between fewer teachers mean putting “students first.” Inspired by the social justice unionism of the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, teachers in Portland put forth a bargaining proposal, “The Schools Portland Students Deserve,” outlining a vision for a more equitable, community oriented school system, immediately rallying the support of students and community activists behind them. As Portland High School teacher Adam Sanchez laughed, “In an email to parents, the district said they were the ones fighting for the education that Portland students deserve and acting in the interests of students, but it becomes very difficult to do that when you have students walking out in support of teachers and going to school board meetings, saying ‘stop your union-busting agenda.’”