Every June, we get a message about the current reach of our local schools.
And it’s not even from graduation.
“Look at the Rose Festival parade,” says Larry Dashiell, senior director of school performance at the Portland school district. “We used to have Portland Public Schools bands in the parade. We don’t have that now.”
Now, in fact, it’s hard to see local school bands anywhere.
In 2015, exactly 25 years after the passage of the tax-cutting Measure 5 in 1990, it’s not easy to see everything that’s changed in our schools. Just like at the Rose parade, you don’t see what’s not there.
But after a quarter-century of cuts, and various stop-and-go local financing efforts to fill in gaps, our idea of an appropriate public education has changed dramatically – and apparently, permanently. On a year-to-year basis the bleeding can seem controlled, but a seventh-grader or a parent parachuted in from 1990 might not recognize much – except maybe some library collections.
With current class sizes, at least they wouldn’t be lonely.
“Prior to Measure 5, our class sizes were around 20 to 25,” recalls Carl Mead, deputy superintendent of Beaverton schools. “Post Measure 5, it was not uncommon to have class sizes starting at 30, and rising from there.” A substantial local option levy passed two years ago has gotten elementary classes back down, but high school classes can still run to 35 or 36.
In Portland, reports Dashiell, class sizes that were once around 22 are now more likely to be in the upper 20s, with some over 30.
Generally, it comes to more kids studying fewer subjects.
Both districts offer fewer language options; Beaverton now has what Mead calls a “smattering” of French and German to go with Spanish, and in Portland it’s now hard to find the German, Russian and Latin once widely available. There’s another shortfall – a vanishing of offerings like wood shop, metal shop, electrical shop and drafting.
We’ve lost things besides class listings. “If you have 35 kids sitting in a language class that once had 22,” points out Mead, “it’s taking your ability to support them.”
By high school, reduction has become a pattern, with fading of art, music and phys ed throughout elementary schools. Then there’s the dwindling of counselors in schools; until Beaverton passed its local levy, schools had half-time counselors, with caseloads in four figures.
Other options have faded as well. Dashiell started as a high school speech teacher; when speech classes disappeared, along with high school speech teams, he was driven into administration. The bands no longer visible at the Rose Parade have been joined in oblivion by school orchestras and choirs.
Surviving activities are now likely to carry a price tag. Playing Beaverton sports costs $225 a season; Portland teams, $200. There is support for low-income students; Portland students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch pay $35. Still, a family with an athletic teenager – or worse, more than one – could face a bill comparable to a Blazers ticket package.
And aside from the official teacher-student ratios and programs gone missing, schools have significantly fewer adults – assistant principals, counselors, office staff, librarians, teaching aides – dealing with students. Again, nobody sees what’s not there, but students have a different experience than in 1990.
Not all of this, of course, is directly due to Measure 5; we’ve also had years of a bone-rattling Great Recession that has sliced school programs in states that never heard of property tax limitation. We’ve also had PERS bills coming due, although we were cutting away long before that situation became acute.
There have also been heroic efforts by local taxpayers and fund-raisers to stem the bleeding. Multnomah County residents paid an income tax for three years, while teachers – as their union leaders will point out reflexively – taught for two weeks for free. Both Portland and Beaverton voters have passed sizable local option levies, making a major difference – in a state where some districts now have four-day school weeks.
Local school foundations have been a help, but also a complication, as some schools struggle to raise four figures while others have parents who can auction off weeks at their vacation homes.
But since 1990, every school looks different, even if fewer people might now notice.
“When you think about 25 years,” says Mead, “you’ve got a whole new group of parents. There’s a new standard of the level of support that schools get.”
In fact, we now put a whole different standard for schools on parade.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/9/15.