Tough talk

Denver teachers union’s strategy for this year’s contract negotiations: Go big

PHOTO: Eric Gorski
The bargaining teams from Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union at a contract negotiation session in March.

The Denver teachers union is taking a more bullish approach this year to negotiating its teachers contract, aided by a relatively new state law that requires bargaining sessions be open to the public and fueled by the notion that educators are fed up.

Its demands are lofty and its presence at bargaining sessions is palpable. Dozens of teachers have been showing up, and they aren’t sitting passively. They’re taking the microphone and telling Denver Public Schools negotiators how proposals would affect them and their students.

“It’s supposed to be about the kids,” a teacher said at a recent session, her voice trembling with emotion. “And we can’t serve our kids adequately if we’re not being treated fairly.”

The union is also live-tweeting the sessions, and when it streamed a session about the teacher evaluation system using Facebook Live, 2,200 people tuned in to watch, union leaders said.

Those actions have ramped up the tone of negotiations in a school district where the union has for years been losing political power as voters continue to elect school board members that back DPS leaders’ brand of education reform, which includes closing low-performing schools and expanding homegrown, high-performing charter school networks.

The union’s contract demands include a moratorium on charter school expansion, more transparency in school closure decisions and a $50,000 starting teacher salary.

“In order to make big change, you have to think big,” said Corey Kern, deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and a member of the bargaining team.

Instead of nibbling around the edges, proposing things they think they can get, the union decided this year to ask for what it thinks teachers and students deserve, he said. Teachers unions in Chicago and Seattle employing similar tactics can point to some victories, including winning concessions on issues such as charter schools and recess time.

“If we never ask for it, it’s never going to happen,” Kern said.

Meanwhile, lead district negotiator Michelle Berge said DPS hasn’t changed its approach.

“Our strategy has been from the beginning that we will do everything we can to be generous to teachers,” she said. “We haven’t taken the position to start low so we end up in the middle somewhere. We’ve tried to be open and forthcoming about what we can do.”

The district’s salary proposal, for instance, would increase teachers’ base salary by a flat $572. Teachers would also get raises based on years of experience and education, as they have in the past, plus the district would contribute more toward their pensions. The proposal would also expand the number of teachers who get bonuses for working in low-income schools. The current base salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $40,289.

Berge said the district bargaining team appreciates being able to hear directly from teachers, though she said the conversation can devolve when the two sides are having tough conversations about hot-button issues and passions flare.

“The emotions have always been a part of bargaining,” she said. Knowing what teachers feel strongly about helps DPS negotiators identify the most critical areas of the contract and push harder to come to a mutually agreeable resolution, Berge said.

But after nearly 40 hours of bargaining since negotiations began in January, the district thinks those resolutions have been too few and far between. On Friday, DPS took the rare step of declaring an impasse in negotiations, which means a mediator will be brought in. Berge said the two sides haven’t made progress on the major issues, such as teacher salary and benefits.

The district hopes the mediator will speed things up. The union sees it as a ploy to move the meat of negotiations behind closed doors. Although the sessions will still be public, the mediator could meet separately with each side in private to help them craft proposals.

“I absolutely think it’s a sign that we’ve been successful in public bargaining,” Kern said.

Audience participation

This isn’t the first time DPS and the union have bargained in public. Public bargaining between school districts and employee groups has been required by state law since 2015. Nor is it the first time teachers in Colorado have turned out in droves to watch.

But this year is different in Denver. In the past, the union and the district established ground rules about public participation (limited), and tweeting and recording sessions (not allowed). This time around, the union didn’t agree to any ground rules.

“Our union’s power is in the activism of its teachers,” Kern explained.

At first, the public participation was formal. The union would tap certain teachers to give short testimony on a particular subject at a set time. But over the months, that feedback has become more spontaneous. Berge said district negotiators have gotten used to it.

At an afternoon session last week, teachers fanned themselves with homemade signs in a stuffy elementary school cafeteria as they listened over a whirring fan to the discussion between the six people on the union bargaining team and the five people on the district team. In the cafeteria’s “allergy friendly area,” denoted on posterboard by a drawing of a crossed-out peanut, a cell phone on a tripod broadcast the session live on Facebook.

Nearly two hours in, talk turned to a section in the contract about when a principal must notify a teacher of a complaint. Berge argued the union’s proposal to require notification within 24 hours wasn’t needed because long delays were uncommon.

Teacher Margaret Bobb raised her hand.

“Can I give some examples?” she asked from her folding chair in the audience.

The 25-year science teacher and longtime union representative stood and talked about how she’d seen principals hold off on telling teachers about complaints so they could investigate, only to have their efforts thwarted by the school’s rumor mill.

“This, ‘Don’t tell the teacher, keep it a secret,’ just creates more angst,” Bobb said.

Other people in the audience nodded in agreement. Berge promised to take what the teachers said back to principals on the ground, get their feedback and come back with another proposal.

Bobb, who’s been to every bargaining session this year, said afterward that she thinks it’s been generous of the district to allow teachers to share their experiences and opinions. But she’s frustrated because it seems like no actual bargaining takes place at the table.

“They say, ‘Thank you for that information. We need to talk about it,’” she said.

Dixie Lingler, a 28-year vocal music teacher who’s been to most sessions, agreed.

“The district’s response often is, ‘We hear you,’” Lingler said. “In fact, I think in the last bargaining session I went to, I put a mark down every time they said that. … You can hear people but if you don’t take that into consideration in how you respond, what value is it?”

Both teachers said they like that the union is making bold demands for higher salaries, lower class sizes and more, including that each school have at least one community liaison, one full-time nurse and the equivalent of one full-time mental health specialist.

“There has been a lot of frustration in the teaching force,” Lingler said. The demands are “not necessarily what we want,” she said, but what is necessary to do the job.

Berge said the district is indeed listening. But the contract is complex. “There are few things in our universe that are simple enough that we can make quick decisions on,” Berge said.

She added that, “I feel like people leave dissatisfied because they feel they’re not getting a response. … It’s tough to defend every single practice from the district, in front of 100 people.”

From opposition to opportunity

The ballot measure that required public bargaining, known as Proposition 104, passed in 2014 with 70 percent voter approval and became law in January 2015. It was championed by libertarian think tank leader Jon Caldara, who said the goal was to move negotiations into the open so the public could watch, not open them up into a public back-and-forth.

“If the union wants to show up, even en masse, if they want to tweet, that’s their prerogative,” said Caldara, president of the Denver-based Independence Institute. But, he said, “I’d suggest they run it like any negotiation. This is not a public participation session.”

At least 12 other states allow public oversight of government collective bargaining, according to the Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Washington state whose website says it is “working to reverse the stranglehold public-sector unions have on our government.”

Jami Lund, a senior policy analyst for group, said that in the states he’s most familiar with, public comment is not allowed. While audience members will sometimes make a show of force by wearing the same T-shirt or sighing loudly, he said, outbursts are not tolerated.

The Colorado Education Association was among several groups that publicly opposed the ballot measure in 2014. (The Denver union is part of CEA.) Statewide union leaders were wary of the measure’s intent and didn’t like that it was drafted without input from educators.

But CEA vice president Amie Baca-Oehlert said the union now sees public bargaining as a great way to engage teachers, parents and taxpayers in the process. Open sessions have helped members stay informed about the latest proposals, she said, although she admits that most negotiations around the state aren’t nearly as well-attended as Denver’s.

“It’s not always the most exciting thing,” she said. “In some places, they struggle to get people to come. It doesn’t always have the fireworks that DPS and DCTA would have.”

In Denver, the two sides are scheduled to meet again on July 24 for the first of seven four-hour sessions set to run through the middle of August. The contract expires Aug. 31. Berge said she doesn’t envision the dynamic will change just because a mediator will be there to help when the parties get stuck.

“We want this process to continue,” she said. “We want the public comment.”

And it appears the union is ready to deliver it.

“Right now our plan is to go about business as usual at bargaining and continue to do the things we’ve been doing,” Kern said. “We’re committed to making sure this process stays in the public.”

Correction: A previous version of this story linked to a DPS webpage that listed an outdated starting teacher salary.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.