Why civil rights groups are split over impending Denver teachers strike

A half-dozen civil rights and community group leaders united Thursday to rally behind pay incentives for teachers in high-poverty Denver schools, aligning with the school district in the most contentious piece of a pay dispute with its teachers union.  

A statement from the coalition, delivered as Denver is on the verge of its first teachers strike in 25 years, said shifting more money to teachers’ base salaries — the union’s proposal — would heighten inequalities in a school district already suffering from enormous achievement gaps.

The statement stood out for another reason: those who did not sign it. Several prominent local civil rights groups that have banded together in the past did not participate, a reflection of both differing opinions and the difficulty of balancing the interests of teachers and families.

A similar dynamic has played out across the country as teacher activism has heightened, with groups like the NAACP siding with unions against charter schools, others promoting charters and other reforms as benefiting students from poor families, and still other groups sitting it out.   

Papa Dia, executive director of the African Leadership Group
, which works with immigrant families in Denver and Aurora, said he and other signatories sought to build a bigger coalition. He said he was surprised more groups did not sign on, but also could understand why.

“It could be that they are torn apart,” said Dia, who would not identify groups that declined to sign. “It is difficult to be put in a position of choosing one way or another because teachers are a part of the community, a part of our family. For us, it is important to ask both sides to figure out a way to come to agreement for the sake of our children.”

Dia said the coalition’s overriding interest is to keep schools open, citing students who rely on free and reduced-price meals served at schools, high schoolers preparing for SATs, and working parents who have to choose between a paycheck or being at home with their children.

Leaders with the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy and Research Coalition, FaithBridge, and Transform Education Now also signed the statement.

A number of those groups are friendly to education reform initiatives, including charters. Transform Education Now, for example, organized parents who supported an unsuccessful effort to bring the KIPP charter school network to the struggling Adams 14 district.

The coalition’s statement says that while implementation has been imperfect, the district’s ProComp pay-for-performance system — the subject of the current negotiations — reflects “our community value to better support our students who face the challenges of growing up in poverty, and who experience the current and historical legacies of racism.”

“We are concerned that a redistribution of ProComp funding into base teacher salary will shift resources from schools in high-need communities to those in more affluent neighborhoods where there are already far greater resources,” the statement says.

Dia said that although the coalition’s position on incentives is in line with the school district’s, he is not in position to say whether the district’s overall proposal is “really a good fit for teachers.”

The district and union, aside from being about $8 million apart, are at odds over both incentives for teachers in high-poverty schools and incentives for teachers who work at 30 “highest-priority” schools. The union wants to reduce the former and eliminate the latter.

Civil rights groups whose names don’t appear on the statement include the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver, the NAACP, Together Colorado, and Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. Chalkbeat could not reach representatives of every group for comment.

The Colorado NAACP has weighed in on the side of teachers along with other members of the Industrial Areas Foundation, a coalition of progressive religious and community groups.

Joyce Brooks, state education chair for the Colorado NAACP, said coalition members looked at both sides’ proposals before coming to a decision, and she believes the focus on incentives misses the point. More robust mental health services, community partnerships, and extracurricular activities would do more to improve conditions for students and teachers at schools with higher needs, she said.

“Without those additional resources going into those schools, whatever you pay them more (in incentives) doesn’t make up for that lack of resources,” she said. “(Teachers) who have stayed talk about having new teachers every year or teachers leaving in the middle of the year.”

“There are other resources needed far more than this incentive, and the incentive does not make that much difference,” she said. “Let’s make a really attractive package for teachers. This is not an attractive place to work, and I believe part of that is working conditions, as well as the cost of living.”

Together Colorado, a faith-based, multiracial civil rights group that champions a number of issues, decided not to sign the statement, Executive Director Mike Kromrey said.

“It’s a very complicated issue, and our folks did not feel ready to weigh in to that,” he said.

The organization’s board chair, Sharon Bridgeforth, elaborated, saying that Together Colorado believes both in economic justice and a liveable wage, and that all children should thrive in schools.

“As an organization, we know that for teachers, it’s difficult and scary for them to strike,” Bridgeforth said. “But in most cases, workers only strike when they feel their backs are against the wall. We believe change often requires tension, and think strikes are a healthy way to express and ultimately resolve the tension.”

“Tension is good,” she said. “That is how we are looking at it right now.”

Erica Meltzer contributed information to this report.