When thousands of Colorado teachers rally at the state Capitol Thursday and Friday, it will be an unprecedented show of force that takes two-thirds of the state’s K-12 students out of school for a day.
Red-shirted teachers are calling for more funding for education, better pay for teachers, and secure retirement benefits. But they face a challenge that educators in other states do not. Colorado voters, traditionally resistant to tax increases, hold the keys to significant new revenue for schools. To make any real progress, teachers will need to convince not just lawmakers but the broader public that education deserves more investment. The test will come in November, when a $1.6 billion tax increase could appear on the ballot.
“People are a little bit nervous,” said Hayley Breden, who teaches government at South High School in Denver. “What if there isn’t success? What if it takes a long time? But that feeling is pretty minimal compared to this feeling of inspiration from other states.”
Riding energy from a national wave of teacher activism and long-simmering frustrations with education funding levels, teachers flooded school offices with requests to take off Thursday or Friday. District after district had to cancel classes – and in their letters to parents, many superintendents expressed support for the teachers’ cause even as they lamented the disruption.
They range from Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, to tiny Clear Creek, with 800 students.
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The timing of the rallies coincides with negotiations on an overhaul to the public employees retirement system with major implications for teacher retirement benefits and for school district budgets. The first teacher rally, which saw the suburban Englewood district cancel classes, started as a union lobby day on pension issues.
Now the union’s demand is for the state to restore funding that has been withheld from K-12 education since the Great Recession by 2022. Colorado schools have missed out on more than $6 billion since 2009 due to a budget maneuver known as the negative factor or the budget stabilization factor.
“If that money had been invested in our public schools, it could have made a substantial difference in the education of our students and also the statewide educator shortage,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association.
Many analyses place Colorado in the bottom tier of states for education funding, while others, including one from the National Education Association that includes federal funding, place us closer to the middle of the pack. Per-pupil funding varies widely among districts. Half the state’s school districts operate only four days a week, in order to save money.
In every ranking, though, teacher salaries fall below the national average, and most teachers have lost ground, earning less now than they did 10 years ago once their salaries are adjusted for inflation. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries.
When Chalkbeat surveyed teachers about what was missing from their schools, the answers ranged from pencils and paper to computers and art supplies. Teachers said they want more mental health services for their students – and the ability to make enough color copies for the whole class.
Those factors might seem to set Colorado up for the next big wave of teacher strikes, following West Virginia, Oklahoma, and now Arizona. But other factors mitigate against it. Salaries and budgets are set by local school boards, not the state. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, a provision in the state Constitution, requires tax increases to go to the voters and places a cap on how much government can grow, even when the economy is doing well.
Republican lawmakers have questioned why teachers are marching now, when the state has just passed a budget that devotes more money to education than in many years – and when lawmakers can’t approve a tax increase or a pay increase.
“How advocacy works in other states doesn’t necessarily work here,” said state Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican.
Even education-friendly Democrats have doubts.
Asked about committing to restoring funding by 2022, state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said: “I like that idea, but we have a lot of constraints in Colorado.”
But teachers demand lawmakers pay attention.
“We really don’t want legislators to enter into next session thinking everything is status quo,” Dallman said.
Dallman is careful to be clear: “This is not a strike. This is individuals using their personal leave to speak to our elected representatives.”
The planned rallies and widespread cancellations have already been a success in one way, Dallman said. “The media is far more interested in covering this than when we have 40 of our members show up for a lobby day.”
In an indication of how widespread the discontent is, even teachers in conservative parts of rural Colorado are planning to walk off the job.
At the beginning of the week, state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican leader from northeast Colorado, downplayed the potential for activism in rural districts, where salaries are lowest.
“A lot of teachers out in rural Colorado don’t belong to the union, hence why they’re not out there marching, they’re staying in the classroom teaching kids,” he said.
By the next day, the Valley Re-1 district in Sterling had canceled classes. Teachers said they plan to rally close to home, at the Logan County Courthouse. Also canceling classes: the district in Cañon City, home of Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham.
Melissa Shaw, who teaches seventh grade social studies in Pagosa Springs Middle School in the Archuleta district in southwest Colorado, isn’t making the five-hour trip to Denver or rallying locally. But she is cheering on those who are. Shaw has been collecting data on her colleagues: 83 percent said they work second jobs during the school year and just 11 percent said they could afford to stay in teaching without another income source.
With a master’s degree and six years of experience, Shaw earns $41,000 a year. If she earned a PhD and stayed in her district for 20 years, she could earn $55,600. She takes on additional jobs during the school year and has two more during the summer – taking high school students on international trips and waiting tables.
At the same time, she worries about the quality of education her own child is getting and about the career and college opportunities that aren’t available to some students – and about the future of teaching.
“I think it’s important for the public to understand how hard we work just to stay in our profession,” she said. “I pay to get into the job, I pay to stay in the job, I pay to grow as a teacher, I pay to get my master’s degree. And then I’m working several jobs. That does not sound very appealing for a career for many people.”
Terrenda White, an assistant professor of education policy at the University of Colorado who focuses on teacher turnover and retention, said current protests are more than a simple labor dispute. Rather, they’re the culmination of decades of education policy.
“We’ve really been demanding that schools and teachers be accountable for student performance,” she said. “That did not come with giving teachers more resources or support or more room for autonomy and decision-making. We’ve been hyper-focused on evaluating them, and we dropped the ball on supporting them. Those are the ingredients for a lot of frustration.”
In Colorado, that sense of disillusionment is heightened because the state’s economy is booming, but schools haven’t returned to full funding, White said.
An open question is how the disruption of widespread teacher walkouts will affect political support from parents.
“One reason parents have resisted teacher strikes is pragmatic,” said Jonna Perillo, an associate professor of English education at the University of Texas in El Paso, who has studied teacher strikes. “They need their kids in school.”
This time parent pushback in other states has been muted, in part because low funding for education is also hurting them. Strikes represent a big but temporary disruption, Perillo said, while a four-day school week, “that’s a lifestyle.”
The political churn of the last two years has earned teachers new allies, at least in some communities. Monica Acosta, an organizing director with southwest Denver parent advocacy group Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, said her members have seen teachers at rallies for immigrant rights or out knocking on doors for causes they also support.
“Parents are seeing teachers become more politically active in supporting their kids on social issues, and they’re reciprocating that support back,” she said.
Dave Flaherty, with the Republican-affiliated polling firm Magellan Strategies, said likely voters, including the independents who make up a third of Colorado’s electorate, have started to express concern about education funding and specifically teacher pay – unprompted – in focus groups. It’s on voters’ minds.
But Flaherty said tax increases remain the same tough sell they’ve always been in Colorado.
The Colorado context means teachers are wise to expand their focus well beyond pensions and pay, White said.
“Community support is important,” White said. “If this is seen as teachers having a labor dispute, that really narrows the scope and the support for it and the momentum. If parent and community support were mobilized along with teachers, it would really help these ballot initiatives. In Colorado, you really need to frame it for voters.”