The President of the Portland Teachers’ Union Defends a Controversial Proposal to Cut Classroom Days

Tobias Read, who has been highlighting his status as a concerned parent during the campaign, took an unusual tack by savaging the union’s proposal.

A Portland teachers’ union proposal last week to cut in-class instruction by one day a week at high schools set off a firestorm.

Portland Teachers Association president Elizabeth Thiel has been calling for versions of this approach since early November.

Portland Public Schools did not agree to last week’s proposal, which would also shorten classroom time by two hours a week at elementary and middle schools. Instead, the union’s proposition resulted in a rare email from the district to families, warning them about fewer classroom hours.

That drew a statement in opposition from a Democratic candidate for governor, State Treasurer Tobias Read.

“As a parent of two school-age children, I’m concerned about the recent proposal put forward by the Portland teachers’ union which would reduce in-person instruction time for our kids,” wrote Read. “We should be talking about ways to expand in-person learning opportunities for students to address the immediate learning gaps that emerged during the last two academic years, not eliminating roughly 20 days of in-person instruction for high school students and 10 for elementary and middle school.”

Thiel calls Read’s numbers “misinformation,” in part because she says the proposal would allow high school students who are struggling to meet in person in smaller groups.

Read, who has been highlighting his status as a concerned parent during the campaign, took an unusual tack by savaging the union’s proposal. Democratic candidates traditionally court the support of teachers’ unions.

Asked by WW for comment, gubernatorial candidate Nicholas Kristof expressed alarm at the union proposal.

“I understand the stresses faced by teachers and school staff, to whom we owe so much, and there’s a genuine risk of more of them leaving the profession,” he said. “But I am deeply concerned that less classroom time would hurt the most vulnerable students and their families.”

Kotek was more equivocal. “I don’t have any comments on this specific proposal—that’s for PPS teachers, the district and parents to consider,” she says. “But students, parents and teachers have been through an incredibly challenging year that magnifies the need for thoughtful discussions on how to create stronger supports for all of them in and out of the classroom.”

WW asked Thiel about the proposal and Read’s statement.

WW: How does your proposal not burden parents, and specifically mothers, who have already been weighed down by the demands of child care during the pandemic?

Elizabeth Thiel: The reason we made these proposals in the first place is that we are facing a crisis shortage that threatens our ability to continue running schools at all. We cannot afford to continue losing educators. That leaves their kids without a teacher every day.

There are no easy answers right now. And so we are looking for the answer that best serves our students, and that is taking into account the reality that a third of our teachers are considering leaving the profession.

Did you anticipate this opposition?

We have been raising this issue since September as a crisis we are facing. It has been disappointing that leaders in our state and our school district have not elevated the crisis of staffing to the point that the community has been able to see and understand it. I know when our community understands what we are facing they will be with us in finding the best solutions we can, given the realities that we are facing.

What’s the problem at Portland Public Schools right now?

So we are facing a drastic staffing shortage. We are trying to avoid what feels like will inevitably become a shutdown due to worker shortages and safety, like we’ve seen as close by as Reynolds Middle School.

Responsible leadership is to readjust to make sure that we do everything we can to avoid a crash landing.

What are the worst effects of it, practically speaking?

Because we have a shortage of teachers and substitutes, we have unfilled positions every day. I heard at George Middle School [last] week, there were 15 educators missing on a single day.

That means whenever there is an unfilled absence, other people are filling in, sometimes period by period. A teacher might have one period of preparation time; they’ll be asked to substitute. Our counselors, who we need so badly to be supporting our students, are being asked to substitute. Our reading specialists who are supposed to be helping catch kids up—they’re not available to do that because they are substituting in classrooms. So are principals and vice principals.

And so when something goes wrong in the classroom—maybe it’s a younger kid and they’re throwing things in the classroom—there’s no one to call because all of the people that would normally be there to support that kid, they’re substituting in classrooms.

What do you think people don’t understand about the union’s bargaining proposal?

The crisis is impacting some schools more than others. Part of equity is looking to see who’s impacted most and making decisions that center those communities. George Middle School, Roosevelt High School, Roseway Heights, César Chávez, Ockley Green and Harriet Tubman—the district has identified schools that regularly do not have enough staff.

Are you concerned you might alienate potential allies, like middle class parents who may not see the crisis in their schools?

That is an interesting question. At the core of what I’m working for are public schools that work, and especially for our families and students that depend on them the most. I believe that when people have all the information, most people want to make the best decisions.

Sometimes the solutions that we need to have the system work may be unpopular and they may be uncomfortable, but leadership is when you’re honest and transparent about the conditions you’re facing.

Did you hear from Tobias Read before he issued a statement this week? And have you talked to him since?

He did not reach out before he made this statement, and he has not reached out since or returned my call.

I would say anybody who was trying to be a lead needs to talk to the people impacted by something before making a public statement. It’s a big disappointment that he didn’t reach out to understand what we’re asking for and why.

Update: Read campaign officials says the campaign reached out to the Oregon Education Association, the statewide union, before Read’s statement and spoke to Thiel after deadline.