In November, Portland teachers went on strike for the first time ever to demand better resources for schools. The local business lobby was quick to chastise the teachers for withholding their labor — but what role do groups like Portland Metro Chamber play in underfunding our schools? In this segment, Guest Mole Alyssa Vitale examines how Oregon business lobbyists and corporate politicians protect capitalist interests at the expense of our educators, our students, and our communities.
Image: Albert B. Burr, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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This month, for the first time in city history, Portland teachers went on strike. While students, families, and community members turned out in droves to support teachers at the picket line, local capitalists reared up, aiming to shame the teachers union into submission.
In October, Portland Metro Chamber published an open letter urging the teachers union and school administrators to avoid a strike. Portland Metro Chamber, AKA Portland Business Alliance, is a regional association that advocates for the capitalist class. While it claims to speak for all sorts of businesses, Portland Metro Chamber’s decision makers are far from local mom-and-pop shops. Its board is full of multinational corporations, commercial real estate companies, banks, and corporate law firms. The board has also represented local real estate dynasties like the Schnitzers, the Goodmans, and the Sturgeons.
Portland Metro Chamber’s lobbying efforts are prolific: Over the past decade, they lobbied city officials seven times more than any other organization. The Chamber also has close ties to Oregon Business & Industry, a state-level lobbying group. Together, they pressure electeds to keep business and wealth taxes low — at the expense of working people.
But … back to their open letter.
Between a bevy of union-busting talking points, Portland Metro Chamber waxed poetic about their longtime, generous support for education funding. Their chief example was the 2019 Student Success Act, which imposed a statewide business tax to fund education.
The open letter conveniently omits that Portland Metro Chamber and Oregon Business & Industry stopped opposing the Student Success Act only after they manipulated the tax language to their liking. Behind closed doors, lobbyists twisted the tax in ways that make it easier for businesses to pass on the cost to consumers.
They also wormed in a local preemption, which means no city, county, or district in Oregon can create its own commercial activity tax. This language was forced into the Student Success Act less than six months after voters established the Portland Clean Energy Fund (or PCEF), a local initiative that funds climate justice efforts through a tax on the biggest corporations — and the biggest polluters. Since PCEF launched, Portland Metro Chamber has repeatedly attacked the program and lobbied to reallocate its revenue to unrelated projects.
One key lobbyist behind Student Success Act business safeguards was Julia Brim-Edwards. Today, Brim-Edwards is a Multnomah County Commissioner and Portland Public Schools board member. But her roots lie firmly in capital: In 2019, Brim-Edwards was a Nike executive … and a Portland Metro Chamber board member. A year earlier, she helped block a ballot measure that would have forced Oregon corporations to publicly disclose tax information. Her herculean efforts to protect corporations have won many friends. She was the top honoree at Portland Metro Chamber’s 2023 gala, and a who’s who of Portland business has contributed the maximum individual donation to her political action committee, including Jordan Schnitzer, Vanessa Sturgeon, Mark Schlesinger, and five members of the Goodman family.
Besides the Student Success Act, Portland Metro Chamber and its allies have spent the past four years attacking equitable education funding locally: specifically, Multnomah County’s universal preschool program, Preschool For All.
Attacks on Preschool For All started even before the program existed. In 2019, the Universal Preschool NOW! Coalition filed paperwork to run a ballot measure that would fund preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the county through a tax on high-income households. In response, Portland Metro Chamber lobbyist Jon Isaacs filed two unsuccessful legal challenges, aiming to prevent the measure from reaching voters. Ultimately, the campaign made it to the ballot and won, almost two to one.
Despite this overwhelming support, Portland Metro Chamber members continue to attack Preschool For All. For example, board member emeritus Patrick Gilligan, executive vice president of an international real estate firm, spent several minutes on stage at a Revitalize Portland Coalition summit whining about the modest tax. The Chamber’s media members have also taken up the charge. Willamette Week recently ran a series of stories framing the program’s living wages for preschool teachers as a problem.
(As an aside, one of Portland Metro Chamber’s bronze-level members is the for-profit child care corporation KinderCare, which generated over $1 billion in revenue in 2020. Who could imagine why they might oppose a robust public preschool program?)
Teachers at all levels — preschool, K–12, and beyond — are essential to positive student outcomes, which impact our entire community. Teachers’ working conditions are student learning conditions, and research shows that class size, school facilities, and high-quality teachers all significantly impact student learning. Investments in the well-being of our students and our educators are an investment in all of us.
And we do have resources to adequately fund our schools, despite what Portland Metro Chamber wants you to think. Revenue from the PCEF and preschool taxes was substantially higher than projected. That does not mean taxes are too high; rather, it illustrates gross inequality in Oregon. While our students shiver in moldy, rat-infested schools, the wealthy Scrooge McDucks hoard their coins.
Speaking of ducks, did you know that lauded University of Oregon philanthropist Phil Knight, as one individual, owns more wealth than the bottom half of all Oregonians combined? Instead of allowing Oregon millionaires to rack up accolades and tax credits for donating to their pet programs, imagine how many schools we could fully fund by taxing their wealth.
On the picket line, Portland teachers warned that the issues they face are not unique to Portland classrooms. Schools across Oregon are plagued by inadequate resources and outdated infrastructure. We will not solve the deliberate, systemic underfunding of our public schools by relying on capitalists and the politicians they buy to dribble out funds. We cannot afford to allow corporate electeds like Julia Brim-Edwards to shield businesses at the expense of our teachers and our students. We must make bold investments in our people, especially workers like teachers, who make our communities run. To do that, we must demand that the wealthy few who extract our labor — and would collapse without us — pay their fair share.