FILE — Oregon high school

South Salem High School in Salem, Oregon 

(The Center Square) – Grecia Gomez never had a teacher of color while she was in school. She says it affected her self-esteem growing up and it's something she believes no child should have to go through.

"Many white teachers looked down on me and would even say I would not go far," Gomez told Oregon lawmakers on the House Education Committee in April. "Having teachers of color is very important. It is a need within our schools."

Since the passage of the 1991 Minority Teacher Act, Oregon set the goal of having an even ratio of teachers of color to students of color in public school classrooms.

During the 2018-19 school year, the Oregon Department of Education reported that 10% of teachers identified as people of color compared to 38% of students. Oregon's statewide student-to-teacher ratio during that period was 19 to 1. The ratio of students of color to teachers of color was 68 to 1.

Under state law, Oregon school districts must retain their most senior teachers in the event of layoffs. The policy, called "last in, first out," is one that unions say enables industries to retain experience and expertise. State lawmakers say the practice has become a problem.

House Bill 2001 would allow school districts to broaden merit to include cultural and linguistic competency factors. The bill would apply to districts where at least one out of four students are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian or Pacific Islander, or non-native English speakers. 

HB 2001 would let districts prioritize retaining teachers fluent in non-English languages unless it conflicts with diversity ratios. As amended, it defines cultural and linguistic competency as experience in any diversity initiative or program.

The bill, sponsored by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, is part of a broader effort by state lawmakers to support racial equity this session. According to a legislative analysis, the bill's race-neutral retention criteria for teachers could hold up in court.

Maya Rabasa, a Latina mother of three, told the House Education Committee last month that HB 2001 will leave experienced teachers with fewer protections and do little to diversify classrooms.

"This bill seems as though it might shift our representation percentages," Rabasa said. "But that is only a possibility, not a promise."

The Oregon Education Association (OEA) said the bill as amended is a good start. A lobbyist with the teachers union, Jared Mason-Gere, told state lawmakers last month that other initiatives such as education equity committees and teacher performance review reform could yield greater results.

"To be clear, we do not believe that layoffs are an appropriate tool used to improve the diversity ratio of the education workforce, and we as a state should ensure that reductions in force continue to be extremely rare," Mason-Gere said. 

The prospect of teacher layoffs has dwindled in light of improved state budget forecasts. Some districts, like Portland Public Schools, issued one-day furloughs at the onset of the pandemic. Oregon teachers last went on strike in 2019.

Gov. Kate Brown's proposed budget would increase the state's funding for K-12 schools to $9.1 billion through 2023. The $100 million increase would likely cover operating expenses alone, Brown's office estimates. OEA officials are calling on the governor to raise that number to $9.6 billion. 

During the 2019-20 school year, 154 school districts representing 76% of the state's student population reported new teachers earned an average of $38,370 per year. Teachers with a bachelor's degree, extensive experience, and graduate school credits can expect to take home $61,973 per year. That's higher than the national average of $59,700.

The Oregon School Boards Association shared concerns last month that HB 2001 could threaten teacher unions' collective bargaining rights but said it supported the goal of diversifying Oregon classrooms.

"However, the goal of the bill is to make Oregon's educator workforce is diverse and representative of our students," OSBA officials said in a statement. "If that means school districts must work with employees collaboratively to do so, then that seems to be work worth doing."

The bill, according to state Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, could benefit from "better language."

HB 2001 failed to move out of the House Rules Committee, which Warner chairs, on Tuesday. It is now rescheduled for further action on Friday.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.