money talks

Why Colorado teachers marched on the state Capitol

Teachers in red gather in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Chanting “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!” and “Whose schools? Our schools!” several hundred teachers came to the Colorado State Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. They marched down Colfax Avenue and around the Capitol building before filling the halls to lobby legislators and rallying in the rotunda.

Emboldened by teacher strikes and walkouts across the nation, a majority of the teachers from the suburban Englewood district joined the day of action, forcing the district to cancel classes, but the protest was a small shadow of the labor unrest among educators in other states.

In interviews, teachers said they recognize the state’s fiscal constraints. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights places a constitutional cap on how much the state budget can grow, even when the economy is good, and requires voters to approve all tax increases. In the afternoon, House Democrats told teachers to go back to their communities and urge voters to approve a major tax increase that could appear on the November ballot.

We asked teachers why they were marching, and this is what they had to say:

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Cody Jump teaches government in rural Lake County, where health insurance rates are among the highest in the country and schools have a hard time filling open positions.

Low pay contributes to high teacher turnover, he said, and if changes to the state public employee retirement system are too onerous, he thinks many younger teachers will leave the profession.

The Democratic-controlled House is currently putting its own stamp on a bill that aims to address an unfunded liability in the state pension system of between $32 billion and $50 billion. The version that came out of the Republican-controlled Senate raises the retirement age, limits cost-of-living raises for retirees, and asks current teachers to pay more. Amendments put on in the House make the bill friendlier to teachers, but the final version still needs to be hashed out.

“We’re trying to stabilize our profession and bring a sense of dignity to teaching so our kids can have the stable schools they need to thrive,” he said.

Jump said he has two young children, and he and his wife use several forms of public assistance just to get by, including visiting a monthly food bank.

“If we miss that, our pantry is in trouble,” he said. Enough teacher families use the food bank that it’s become a social gathering spot for their spouses.

If something doesn’t change, he said, the quality of education will suffer.

“There are good, high-quality teachers who just will not come here,” he said. “I don’t want my son to spend a decade in a school system full of people we had to scrape together.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Amy Nagel is a physical education teacher in an Englewood elementary school, just south of Denver. Her biggest concern is the lack of mental health services and counselors in schools. Many of the children she teaches come into school having already experienced trauma in their young lives, she said, and they need counseling and support before they can learn well.

“There is a misunderstanding that we’re asking for pay raises,” she said. “This is 100 percent about making sure that our schools are funded. We deserve pay raises, but we’re here for our kids.”

The decision by Englewood teachers to leave school en masse was inspired in part by teacher action in other states, she said.

“I think the government is really hoping we will be teachers to our core and be quiet and keep the peace,” she said. “I hope that teachers see the activism and know that they’re supported and know that interrupting a little bit of a child’s education to impact decades of education is worth it.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Kathryn Brown is a counselor at an alternative high school in the Englewood district. She said she’s marching for more school funding and to protect retirement benefits.

“I feel very fortunate because my school values the mental health professionals who work there, but it’s often one of the first things cut,” she said. “So when we’re talking about school funding, we’re not just talking about academics. We’re talking about educating the whole child.”

If retirement benefits become less generous, younger teachers and counselors “absolutely” will leave the profession, Brown said.

“We don’t get paid very much, but at the end we’re promised a good retirement,” she said. “And I want my retirement.

Like many of her colleagues, Nagel has a master’s degree and student loans she can’t pay off.

“That’s okay because I love to do what I do, but at some point new educators, new counselors are going to say, this is it, it’s not worth it,” she said.

Brown said Englewood teachers were inspired by teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia.

“It emboldened our teachers and gave us a lot of courage because we’ve seen it in other states,” she said. “I think educators are fed up with not being valued and not being paid.”

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.

priorities

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.