Red for ed

A day of action by Colorado teachers will bring hundreds to the Capitol and already one district has canceled classes

Members of the audience, mostly teachers and paraprofessionals, react to the 3-2 vote by the Pueblo school board to reject a recommendation for pay increases. (Chris McLean, The Pueblo Chieftain)

In the midst of a wave of teacher activism across the country, educators in Colorado are joining the fray by putting more pressure on lawmakers, calling attention to school funding shortfalls — and in one case forcing a school district to cancel classes by walking off the job.

Hundreds of Colorado teachers will descend on the Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and for protecting teachers’ retirement benefits. The leader of the state teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, said the union had originally planned this as a “Lobby Day” because changes to the retirement plan are being heard in a House committee.

The mass walkout in the suburban Englewood district south of Denver grew out of a local grassroots effort there, not a campaign by the state union. The same holds true with the growing movement of teacher activism across the U.S., with minimal to no union involvement and organizing being done largely on Facebook.

“This planning and organizing has largely happened organically,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the state union. “These are teachers, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals that are fed up … with the chronic year-over-year underfunding of our schools.”

This new wave of teacher activism started in February with a nine-day strike in West Virginia that ultimately netted teachers a 5 percent pay raise. This month, Oklahoma teachers went on a nine-day strike that won them pay raises but did not overturn a capital gains tax repeal they’d opposed. On Wednesday, thousands of Arizona teacher wore red and rallied for higher pay and more education funding at walk-ins held before the school day started. Today, Kentucky teachers are holding a day of action at their state’s Capitol building.

Dallman said these efforts have energized Colorado teachers.

“The fact that these very conservative states have really been able to take this message to their state legislatures has been very empowering to our members,” she said.

Dallman said around 400 teachers have said they plan to attend the Lobby Day on Monday, but she expects the number to grow through the weekend. Participants will include teachers from Englewood and several other metro Denver districts, as well teachers from northern Colorado, the Eastern Plains, and some mountain town districts, she said. The rally will run from 10 a.m. to noon.

Officials at the 2,800-student Englewood district announced Thursday that they won’t hold classes on Monday because about 150 teachers – 70 percent – are expected to participate in the rally. Dallman said she’s heard that individual schools in other districts may close Monday due to teachers taking personal leave time to attend the rally, but said it wasn’t clear yet which ones.

In other Colorado districts on Monday, teachers will wear “red for public ed” and stage “walk-in” events at their schools to raise awareness about school funding shortfalls.

Dallman said the union wants the legislature to make a down payment of $150 million on the negative factor this year and commit to eliminating it by 2022. In addition, it wants significant changes to the retirement system overhaul approved by the Senate and under consideration next week by the House.

The negative factor is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to constitutional requirements. The state’s 2018-19 budget already includes that $150 million increase in school funding, but lawmakers have not committed to continuing increases in future years.

Monday’s rally and walk-ins come as simmering frustration among teachers in several Colorado districts has boiled over this spring. On Thursday, teachers union leaders in Pueblo threatened to strike after the school board voted down pay increases for teachers and paraprofessionals. Last month, Denver’s teacher union leaders voted to authorize a strike if they couldn’t reach a deal with the district. In the end, the two sides agreed to keep talking, but the union left the door open for a strike next January.

Both teachers and school district leaders have expressed frustration for years about what they see as an education funding crisis in Colorado — the product of a tangle of laws and constitutional measures that limit school revenue increases.

Evidence of the problem is easy to find. A recent report found that Colorado ranks last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. And recently some mid-sized districts have decided to switch to four-day schools weeks as a way to ratchet up their appeal to teachers since significant salary bumps aren’t feasible. One of those districts is Pueblo, where the school board opted not to turn cost savings from the shorter school week into pay raises.

This November, Colorado voters could see a request for a major tax increase for education.  The measure would raise $1.6 billion by increasing the corporate tax rate and increasing income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 a year, as well as changing how residential property is taxed for schools.

Still, there’s no guarantee the ballot initiative will pass. Voters have twice before rejected statewide school funding measures, most recently in 2013.


Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.


With school finance act, Colorado lawmakers try to pass the hot potato of teacher pay to local districts

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, calls for more money for education during a rally with teachers and fellow Democratic members of the House Education Committee at the Capitol Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

A school finance act that puts more money into K-12 education than Colorado has spent at any point since the Great Recession passed a key House committee Monday with easy bipartisan support.

Democratic lawmakers on the House Education Committee urged local school boards to turn this money into teacher raises – and Colorado voters to provide even more funds next year.

The hearing on the school finance act occurred as hundreds of teachers descended on the Capitol as part of a day of action to ask for more school funding and protections for retirement benefits. Before the hearing started, Democratic committee members met with teachers in the foyer of the Capitol and joined them in chants of “not enough” and “no more B.S.,” a reference to the state’s budget stabilization or “negative” factor. That’s the difference between what Colorado spends on schools and what it’s constitutionally required to allocate, based on inflation and numbers of students.

A group of education advocates hopes to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for schools on the November ballot. Colorado voters have twice before rejected tax increases for education, most recently in 2013.

“We need to support our teachers, and we need to support our schools, and we need you to ensure not only that we pass the bills that we are bringing this session, but that we unite this November to ensure our kids are put first in Colorado,” said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee.

The school finance act, which provides more detail on the education funding already set aside in the 2018-19 budget, calls for a little more than $7 billion in total program spending in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from this year. The state portion is $4.5 billion, a 10 percent increase from this year; local districts would provide $2.5 billion, a 1.4 percent increase.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That leaves the negative factor at $672 million, the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year.

During the hearing, state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, asked Matt Cook of the Colorado Association of School Boards why teacher raises seem to come last when districts get more money, and state Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, asked if the legislature needs to have more oversight of how districts spend state money. Colorado does not have a statewide teacher salary schedule, and districts have a lot of discretion on how they set their budgets.

“The people on the ground are hurting,” Garnett said. “They can’t meet their basic needs. And I want to help them, but it’s really your members who hold the key to their solution.”

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school spending and teacher pay, and a recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.

Cook said school boards are acutely aware of how low pay hurts their ability to hire and keep teachers. The availability of more money from the state will be a factor in union negotiations currently underway in districts around the state, he said.

But districts have to balance teacher pay with a wide range of needs, including services for students learning English and students with disabilities that are not funded by the state at their full cost, he said.

“We recognize that a qualified, highly motivated teacher in the classroom is a major part of a child’s education,” Cook said. “We’re doing the best we can. Nobody wants to not pay teachers.”

School district representatives told the committee that a promising state budget forecast is already turning into more services for students. An official from the Adams 12 Five Star district said the district had increased interventions for students with dyslexia in anticipation of more state money, and a superintendent from the rural Hanover district said $30 million in extra funding for rural schools – first allocated last year and now extended for a second year – allowed him to hire a second science teacher and a school counselor.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, the Republican co-sponsor of the school finance act and a former district superintendent, said he could just as easily ask lawmakers why the entire $1.3 billion budget surplus isn’t going to schools.

“I won’t ask you to answer that because you already know the answer,” he said. “That’s the same situation that a school district finds itself in.”

The school finance act also:

  • Sends an extra $30 million to rural schools,
  • Creates 1,000 new spots for children with certain risk factors in publicly funded preschool and kindergarten,
  • Allocates money for English language learners based on the actual number of students at various levels of need, rather than dividing it based on a formula,
  • Calls for any general fund surplus at the end of this budget year to go into education next year,
  • Requires that the negative factor for 2019-20 not be any larger than it is in 2018-19.

The school finance act still needs to pass the full House before it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.