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‘Our Students Deserve Better’: Teacher Strike Hits Colorado

On May 7, teachers in Colorado’s Pueblo District 60 went on strike after the state’s Department of Labor and Employment declined to intervene in a dispute over salaries and school funding. It’s the first teacher strike in Colorado since 1994.

The strike came just days after teachers from over two dozen Colorado schools descended upon the capitol on April 26 and 27, demanding higher pay, increases in school funding, and secure retirement plans.

Corey Kern, the deputy executive director of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, told Shadowproof that Colorado teachers are frustrated with their situation and were inspired by recent strikes in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

Teacher pay in Colorado ranked 31st in the nation last year, with an average annual salary of $51,810. That’s 15 percent lower than the national average.

But these numbers also conceal an important fact: Colorado teacher salaries differ widely from district to district. For example, in Pueblo, where the strike is taking place, the average teacher salary is $47,617. Many teachers in rural districts are only making around $30,000 a year.

These statistics become much more troubling when compared against the backdrop of Colorado’s housing market. Denver teachers make more than the annual state average, taking home about $54,500 a year, but according to a study done by the brokerage firm Redfin, Denver is the least affordable housing market for teachers in the entire country.

Sara Spillan, a second grade teacher in the Douglas County School District, said she participated because salaries and funding had not increased in her community for several years.

“The other large districts in the metro area receive between $872 and $2,350 more per-student than Douglas County,” said Spillan. “Additionally, teacher salaries in Douglas are $17,000 less than the neighboring Cherry Creek and $13,000 less than in Littleton.”

“We are hoping to pass a Mill Levy bond [a type of funding drawn from property taxes] in the fall but want to get our community involved in putting our students first.”

Teachers can only afford to purchase 0.03 percent of the homes in Denver on the average city salary. According to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress, 22 percent of Colorado teachers take on second jobs to make ends meet.

Colorado’s per-pupil funding is $2,700 under the national average, according to the Colorado Education Association. Schools are not only underfunded by about $822 million, but have a cumulative financial obligation of $6.6 billion since 2009 as well.

One teacher, who participated in the protests but asked to remain anonymous, told Shadowproof she was shocked when she read about the state’s education budget.

“I was shocked because our economy is booming!” she exclaimed. “The teachers at my school are all very vocal, and we all want to make sure our voices were heard because our students deserve better and they deserve more than what they are getting.”

“We had a group of about 20 teachers that participated in the walkout, which is great and solidifies that I am at a school that cares about the students and the future of our schools.”

Eroding pensions also hover over these protests, like they do in all states where teachers have organized.

The teacher said she first became aware of how serious Colorado’s education problems were after hearing about plans to potentially overhaul the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (or PERA).

For many public employees, PERA is a substitute for Social Security. Employees have a fixed percentage of their salary that goes to retirement trust funds. School district payments to PERA have almost doubled from 2006 to today as teacher benefits eroded. According to one study, only $3 of every $20 spent on teachers goes toward their retirement.

Colorado has a Democratic governor, unlike other states where teacher revolts have developed. However, education funding advocates face an obstacle that is seemingly more daunting than a fiscally conservative lawmaker.

In 1992, Colorado residents voted to amend the state’s constitution and establish a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), a law that was authored by the conservative anti-tax activist Douglas Bruce. TABOR dictates taxes can’t be raised and government spending can’t be increased unless a proposal is approved by the state’s voters.

Governor John Hickenlooper said the state’s constitution must change to stimulate education funding.

“I’m a believer that we have to pay more to teachers,” Hickenlooper recently said. “Ultimately, our kids are going to be the future of our economy, so we’re fools or just blind if we don’t recognize that and begin finding ways we can increase that compensation. If that means we’ve got to modify the ceiling on TABOR, then we probably need to do that.”

Although there are currently no plans to push these issues via a statewide strike, the very possibility was enough to scare two Republican lawmakers into introducing legislation that would preemptively block any such action.

Last month, State Senator Bob Gardner and Representative Paul Lundeen proposed a new law that would allow Colorado to fire striking teachers without a hearing, fine them $500 a day, and possibly jail them for six months if they ignored court orders to stop striking.

Gardner withdrew the bill after one week, claiming there wasn’t enough time left in the legislative session to give it the long debate it deserved.

At the rally, Governor Hickenlooper addressed the crowd and told them he would pressure the state to pay back the money it had borrowed from education during the recession.

“We want more,” some teachers shouted at him.

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Michael Arria

Michael Arria

Michael Arria covers labor and social movements.