Oregon House leaders on Tuesday announced that they'd approved a $7.255 billion schools budget for the next two years as the state's financial commitment to K-12 education. Schools advocates say they want more—and that could set up a battle for the remainder of the 2015 legislative session.

But many people believe the amount the state spends on schools is not the biggest money issue in Oregon education. Instead, it's the tension between the Legislature, which doles out the state support for schools, and local school boards that decide how to spend the money. 

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber recognized the problem. Local districts negotiate their own contracts with teachers' unions. Kitzhaber believed that as long as the Oregon Education Association, the 45,000 member teachers' union, prevailed over local school boards—and it often does—districts will continue to spend money faster than the state can send it to them. 

Kitzhaber called this problem “the disconnect.” 

The emails that a Kitzhaber aide sought to destroy in February, eight days before the governor announced his resignation, show Kitzhaber had a plan to try to end this problem.

"This cannot wait until after November 4 and it has budget and political implications for 2015 and beyond," Kitzhaber wrote to his labor adviser, Duke Shepard, in a Sept. 7, 2014, email obtained by WW. He asked Shepard to put all the elements of the disconnect down in a memo to prepare for the 2015 Legislature. 

"1. Make sure that our entire education team (and budget team) understands this and recognizes the need to address it," Kitzhaber told Shepard in the email. "2. Develop a powerful white paper that lays out the problem statement without out prescribing solutions."

As part of his plan to end the state of perpetual K-12 funding crisis, Kitzhaber wanted to take away one of the biggest tools the teachers' union tool box—the ability to strike.

The threat of a strike looms over teacher contract negotiations all across Oregon. In 2014, the Portland Association of Teachers voted to strike, a threat that forced the settlement of a long and brutal contract negotiation with Portland Public Schools. The strike threat helped force PPS' hand in settling with teachers.

Kitzhaber wanted lawmakers to pass a law that would make it illegal for teachers to strike. Here's the rationale for the move in a Sept. 19, 2014, memo that Shepard prepared in response to Kitzhaber's request:

The

right to strike is based on the theory that workers should have the right to

withhold their labor in order to press the employer in a bargaining situation

in which the employer traditionally has far more power than the worker, and a

profit center from which to allocate resources.  This model is based on the private sector, where the

employer is private enterprise, and the customers are consumers or other

businesses.

This

doesn’t work for education. The employer is ultimately the taxpayer, with

limited resources and no profit, expecting a public good.  Children are stuck in between as they

are conscripted to public schools in order to be provided with the education

that is the key to their entire lives. 

They are innocent leverage points for the adults.  They have no vote. They have no

choices.  They are dependent upon

the teachers and the school.

The trend in Oregon labor relations has been

to spare innocent, vulnerable populations from being used as strike

leverage.   Since 1996 with

public safety officers (fire, police, corrections), since 2001 with homecare,

and since 2007 with adult foster care, state subsidized child care, and public

transit workers.  K-12 is now actually the outlier when

dealing with “vulnerable populations” and critical public services. Moreover,

aside from public safety, the absence of the ability to strike was a choice advocated

by labor.   

The

implicit threat in a teacher strike isn’t the withholding of labor from a

corporate employer and cutting into profits, it’s the withholding of education

from children.  It’s no coincidence

that OSEA – representing classified staff – have never gone on strike, while

OEA licensed units consistently threaten strikes, while more and more

frequently acting on those threats. 

They have tremendous leverage and little to lose.  They can’t lose their jobs (the school

district can’t leave town like a steel mill), kids love their teachers, families

need their schools, and the districts will ultimately buckle under the pressure. 

Before Kitzhaber won re-election for a fourth term as governor on Nov. 4, 2014, he ordered up a bill that would end teachers' ability to strike.

Here's a summary of the bill concept, dated Nov. 3, 2014.

Prohibits strikes by teachers employed by school district. Mandates arbitration of disputes between school district and employees. Requires arbitrators to select final offers that ensure school districts meet certain criteria. Eliminates expedited bargaining process for disputes between school district and employees of district.

But after Democrats in both chambers widened their majorities in November—in no small part thanks to generous contributions from the Oregon Education Association—Kitzhaber decided not to move forward with the bill.