By John Larson

Recently, there have been several misleading claims published around educator compensation. Some members of the media would have the public believe that the educators who work tirelessly to ensure every student in the state has the opportunity to succeed simply earn too much money.

Reality, however, paints a much different picture. The average starting salary for an Oregon teacher is approximately $37,000. That’s 25 percent less than what someone with a similar level of education earns in the private sector.

No one became an educator because they thought they would become wealthy. They do this work because they want to make a difference for their students and communities. As an English teacher in the Hermiston and Morrow County school districts for 25 years, and now as president of the Oregon ­Education Association, I’ve met thousands of educators who struggle to make ends meet, who are worried they will never be able to get out from under the burden of their student debt, and who wonder if they will ever be able to afford to own a home.

I’ve met educators like Travis Overly, a high school social studies teacher in Bend. He’s a veteran who earned his teaching degree on the GI Bill. Overly has experienced class sizes of more than 40 students, but he is willing to persevere because he knows he makes a difference in the lives of his students.

Educators like Overly aren’t in it for the money, but they have always counted on access to a secure retirement as a thank you for their years of self-sacrifice. Now, Oregon’s powerful corporate lobby and politicians like Knute Buehler want to take away the promise we made to people like Travis.

Over the past 25 years, Oregon has steadily taken resources away from our students and schools. In addition to rolling back the commitment to adequately fund schools, there have been massive attacks on educators’ retirement and benefits, resulting in educators being forced to pick up more and more of the bill. And beyond paying their share for retirement and medical benefits, educators have had to reach into their own pockets to pay for school supplies and curriculum materials that help to make the students’ school experience a positive one.

Meanwhile, large corporations have racked up record profits while contributing less and less to helping students succeed. This has left thousands of our best and brightest educators demoralized and fearful of their ability to stay in the classroom.

Oregon already faces a shortage of qualified educators. Nationally, enrollment in education prep programs has fallen 30 percent in the past decade. By continuing to push talented educators away from the profession, we are hurting our most vulnerable students.

If we want students to succeed, we need to start investing in their future. We need to lower class size. We need to restore essential programs like art, music and PE. We also need to stop using educators as scapegoats, because we need them to inspire our students and help each one of them reach their fullest potential.

— John Larson is the president of the Oregon Education Association.