By Janelle Rebick

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This month, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) released its annual statewide school report card. This report showed us what is working well in our public schools and where we can improve. We made modest improvements increasing the diversity of our education workforce, and we continue to narrow the achievement gap between students of color and white students. The school report card also showed that Oregon schools continue to struggle with chronic absenteeism, and other data shows we continue to have some of the largest class sizes in the nation.

To continue helping students find success, we must be able to recruit and retain the best and the brightest talent for our classrooms. Unfortunately, the ODE report showed why many school districts struggle to compete with the private sector for qualified educators. Over the past six years, teacher salaries have dropped against inflation by more than 5 percent. Meanwhile, superintendent salaries have held steady and in real dollars have increased more than 14 percent.

With an average starting salary of around $35,000 in Oregon and constant threats from lawmakers to slash benefits, it is easy to see why teaching is becoming a less attractive profession for young people. Teachers make 25 percent less than their peers in the private sector who have the same level of education. I’ve seen the impact this has on teachers in Bend.

I’ve talked with new teachers in my district who say they have trouble sleeping at night because they worry they will never be able to pay off their college debt. I know teachers who are struggling to make ends meet for themselves and their families. And oftentimes, the stress becomes too much and forces some of our best teachers to leave the classroom. It saddens me to think that nearly half of all teachers leave within five years, because this is a loss for both them and their students.

No one goes into education to make a lot of money. We know that when we sign up. We teach because of our students: to make a difference in their lives, to help them succeed and to ensure each of them has a caring and committed teacher in their life. But even the most dedicated teacher can lose faith when facing crowded classrooms and threats of further pay cuts. Higher-paying, private sector jobs with less stress can be very attractive options.

As an elementary teacher of 19 years and now the president of the Bend Education Association, I see this every day. I see bright young teachers who simply cannot make ends meet and decide to pursue other careers. It breaks my heart because I know the impact this has on students.

I will never give up on our public schools. But we need to do a better job of making teaching a top-tier choice for qualified people in our state. To do this, we need to commit to fully funding education so that we can finally bring down class sizes, and we need to ensure teachers earn a competitive wage so that our best and brightest consider a career helping students.

— Janelle Rebick is the president of the Bend Education Association and a 19-year elementary school teacher in Bend.