Teachers in Washington got hefty raises this year following a big boost in state funding. That news was not lost on teachers in Oregon, who have complained for years that they’re underpaid.
Lindsay Dance teaches Spanish at Tualatin View Elementary in Beaverton. Two years ago, budget cuts almost eliminated her job.
“I received notice that I would be welcomed back the following year, contingent on funding — and they wouldn’t know the answer about whether or not I had a job until June,” Dance said.
She said the district’s human resources team ran a meeting, where she said “they basically prepared us for layoffs.”
“That didn’t feel good,” Dance recalled.
New teachers in Beaverton earn just short of $44,000 per year. That’s not a lot, considering the Portland area’s rising cost of living.
Studies over the last year have painted conflicting pictures of Oregon teacher pay. A study from the National Education Association placed Oregon relatively high for what it pays teachers, at 13th in the country. But a more recent report from the left-leaning Oregon Center for Public Policy concluded public school teachers earned less “relative to comparable workers in the private sector.”
“It almost feels like we’re not valued," Dance said.
When Dance’s Beaverton teaching job was in doubt two years ago, she applied for jobs in Washington. She said she was close to taking a position in Washington, until Beaverton renewed hers.
Dance said she went through the same “maybe you’ll have a job, maybe you won’t” uncertainty again last spring and said she expects to go through it again in 2019.
Dance still works two nights a week teaching pre-school to help pay the bills.
Other teachers take jobs outside of schools — like driving for Uber and Lyft.
“I poured beer and wine at the Blues Festival, I took babysitting jobs, I took tutoring jobs,” said Skye Hanna, a kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School in North Portland, recalling her first part-time teaching job.
“I took anything else, so that I could pay my rent at the end of the day,” Hanna said.
Beaverton Spanish teacher Lindsay Dance looked into jobs in Washington because she thought she was losing hers. Skye Hanna wasn’t thinking about it, until she saw Washington teachers marching with picket signs, at the start of the school year.
“I would say it definitely piqued my interest when I saw all those teachers protesting on the news,” Hanna said.
Hanna spoke to colleagues at Rosa Parks and to her former grad school classmates. She’s heard teachers conclude they could earn $8,000 to $9,000 more per year working in southwest Washington.
The official numbers from Vancouver and Evergreen school districts confirm the significant pay differences, compared to the largest districts on the Oregon side of the Columbia River.
Starting pay in Portland is just over $42,000. That's a far cry from the new, higher salaries at Vancouver ($50,413) or Evergreen Public Schools ($51,619). At the other end of the pay scale, the difference remains significant.
Oregon teachers top out lower in both Portland ($85,646) and Beaverton ($89,886) compared to Vancouver ($95,019) and Evergreen ($98,279).
The higher pay in Washington didn’t come easily.
Education advocates forced increases in school funding through a yearslong court case that resulted in what's called the McCleary decision. Washington's Supreme Court mandated higher spending on schools, including a $2 billion increase specifically to improve teacher compensation. Lawmakers approved a complicated set of changes to school funding, which then led to district-level negotiations to set the higher pay levels into teacher contracts. That led to teacher strikes, particularly in southwest Washington.
Oregon teachers landing better-paying jobs in Washington seems easy by contrast.
“Because I live in St. Johns, right? It’s not that far for me, to just cross over into Vancouver,” said Hanna, emphasizing that her North Portland neighborhood is a quick drive — against traffic — to Washington.
That temptation worries Lew Frederick, D-Portland, whose district includes St. Johns and other areas along the Columbia River.
“I think that’s a significant and appropriate fear that we should have,” Frederick said.
“They’ve addressed the issue of teacher pay; that’s going to draw teachers in Oregon over to Washington. I can guarantee you that’s already happening,” Frederick concluded.
And it’s not just Portland-area teachers like Hanna and Dance.
Delfino Osorio-Garcia teaches science at Hermiston High School, after getting his first teaching job down the road in Umatilla. Osorio-Garcia was born in Mexico, but grew up in eastern Washington.
He said when he got his first teaching job in Umatilla, it paid better than similar jobs in the Tri-Cities across the river. Not anymore.
“It’s striking — it’s striking to see raises, salary increases in the teens — 15 [percent] and more,” Osorio-Garcia said.
Oregon is trying to hang on to Latino teachers like Osorio-Garcia. He’s not planning to leave — he’s the local union president and likes the small-town feel of Hermiston. But he expects his colleagues to look into it, especially teachers who live in Washington, but drive over to Oregon every day for school.
“I’m wondering how many of them are thinking, at the end of the day, ‘Do I keep on making this commute?’” Osorio-Garcia said.
Officials at Washington school districts acknowledged that they regularly hire teachers who live in Washington but work in Oregon.
The higher Washington salaries are likely to get attention beyond the banks of the Columbia River. Sen. Frederick’s son works as a teacher in Utah.
“I don’t think he’d mind living in Vancouver or Seattle, or some place on the other side of the river,” said Frederick.
Frederick warned that Washington schools will get more aggressive at recruiting from across the river.
“This is an issue that we are going to have to deal with,” Frederick predicted. “They will raid the state, as much as they possibly can.”
School district officials in Washington say there are more benefits to teaching in Washington than simply the higher salaries. The cost of living tends to be lower in Vancouver, for teachers who move. Class sizes tend to be smaller, making for easier work conditions — another dimension of Washington’s recent investments in its schools.
But school district officials in Washington deny the likelihood of cross-state poaching or fears that teachers will leave.
“We don’t have droves of openings,” said Gail Spolar, spokeswoman for Evergreen Public Schools, the largest Clark County school district. “We had 156 hires this year and only 14 were from Oregon.”
Spolar said new hires have to be a good fit, particularly when it comes to the district’s emphasis on classroom technology initiatives. She said as a result, the district tends to rely pretty heavily on student-teachers who’ve already spent time in Evergreen schools.
One of the countervailing forces in Oregon, is the state's generous Public Employee Retirement System, particularly for long-tenured teachers.
That’s one reason that educators like Lindsey Dance expect newer teachers to be the most tempted by jobs in Washington. Teachers who’ve been in Oregon schools a long time have built up big retirement packages and are less inclined to start over in a new system.
“I am at the bottom of PERS — that is not something I’m necessarily invested in as much as an older teacher,” Dance said. “It’s the younger teachers who would probably be leaving.”
Dance notes that it’s also younger teachers like her who regularly get notices that they might be losing their jobs, due to Oregon’s unstable funding system.
Oregon teachers say they’d leave reluctantly. They’d rather see the Washington salaries force the hand of Oregon legislators, like Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, who chairs a key education committee.
“We have been needing to establish a dedicated revenue source for education for 30 years,” Smith Warner said. “So I welcome anything that puts more external pressure on us.”
Any actual movement is still months away. If Washington districts are going to get an onslaught of applications from Oregon, it'll happen this spring and summer — when schools do the bulk of their hiring.
Next spring is also when legislators will have to finalize budget plans, which could determine whether teacher compensation in Oregon is likely to improve. Meantime in Washington, school district officials are concerned about the mechanics of legislators' school funding changes, and are hoping to tweak them next year.