Everything you need to know about why Colorado teachers are walking out of classes and onto the Capitol

What do the teachers want? What have they been doing? And why is there a bill trying to ban teachers from striking?
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Teachers are normally at the front of the classroom, scribbling on the board. Or monitoring students while they take tests. Sometimes they’re hunched over their desks grading with a tell-tale red pen.

But these days, they’ve been on the streets.

Colorado public school teachers have been making their presence known at the state Capitol — and they have plans to continue to do so. In the meantime, districts have been forced to cancel school days.

What do the teachers want? What have they been doing? And why is there a bill trying to ban teachers from striking? Here’s a crash course:

What they want

Long story short, teachers are looking for more funding.

The state currently underfunds schools by $822 million annually, said Kerrie Dallman, president of the teachers union Colorado Education Association. Since 2009, the state has shorted schools $6.6 billion, she said.

It’s worth noting that while the Legislature’s yearly cuts to education funding are highly contentious, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that they are constitutional.

The shortage plays out in each district differently. Districts have implemented four-day weeks, increased student fees and cut the number of teachers while growing class sizes and decreasing the number of courses. It’s also led to a lack of adequate staffing of counselors, social workers and school psychologists, she said.

On top of this, low salaries have contributed to a teacher shortage, especially in rural areas.

Although the Joint Budget Committee agreed in March to set aside $100 million to reduce the shortage, it’s not enough, teachers say. Dallman said teachers are asking lawmakers to commit to paying schools what they are supposed to within four years.

Until school funding is restored or until per-pupil funding reaches the national average, teachers are asking legislators to freeze corporate tax breaks and delay passing Senate Bill 1, a measure proposed by Senate Republican leaders to spend $350 million in tax dollars to create a transportation bond of up to $3.5 billion.

How Colorado stacks up

Colorado paid teachers an average annual salary of $46,506 in the 2016-2017 school year. That ranks 46th among the states and Washington, D.C., according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The national average the same year was $58,950.

When adjusted for inflation, teachers’ annual average salaries have dropped 15 percent from the 1999-2000 school year to the 2016-2017 school year, according to the same data. That’s the second steepest decrease in the nation, closely trailing Indiana which dropped 15.7 percent.

According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, Coloradan teachers who have a graduate degree and 10 years of experience earn less than a trucker does in the state.

Colorado has 54,691 teachers, according to the National Education Association’s 2017 Rankings and Estimates report. There are roughly 16.4 students for every teacher, which is slightly above the national average of 15.9 students.

In the 2012-2013 school year, Colorado ranked 40th in per-pupil spending, according to the Colorado School Finance Project. The state spent $8,893 per pupil compared to the U.S. average of $11,001. Spending per pupil varies per district, though.

The teacher’s union surveyed 2,200 of its members and found that teachers on average spend about $656 a year out of their pocket for supplies, such as books, pencils, glue, binders, food, toothpaste, teaching materials, lunch money and field trips.

It’s a rally, not a strike

On April 16, about 400 teachers rallied at the state Capitol, demanding changes in school funding and lobbying for higher teacher pay and a stronger retirement fund.

Unlike other states, though, the move was not a strike, Dallman said. Teachers used their personal leave to take the day off. She added that teachers gave districts notice so they could plan accordingly.

In Englewood, schools canceled classes after more than 150 teachers announced plans to participate in the rally. They were joined by teachers from Denver Public Schools and the Boulder Valley School District.

But Pueblo actually is striking

On Friday, Pueblo teachers voted in favor of striking after the Pueblo City Schools board of education rejected a 2 percent cost-of-living pay increase for teachers that was recommended by a third-party fact-finder.

District officials defended the board’s decision by saying it was based on the district’s rough financial situation, which includes a $3.6 million deficit this year. The board also approved a four-day school week starting next year.

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has until the first week of May to decide if it has jurisdiction to mediate the dispute. Teachers have to wait until then to strike.

A bill that would outlaw teacher strikes in Colorado

On Friday, Republican lawmakers Sen. Bob Gardner, of Colorado Springs, and Rep. Paul Lundeen, of Monument, introduced Senate Bill 264, which would prohibit Colorado teachers from striking.

Under the bill, school districts would be barred from paying an educator for any day they participate in a demonstration. Districts would also be able to seek an injunction to stop a strike in court. Any educator who didn’t comply would be in contempt of court, facing fines and up to six months in jail, or both. The district could also fire a teacher without holding a hearing if they violated the court order.

If a teacher organization was found in contempt, any collective bargaining agreement they’d worked on would be made null and they’d be barred from collecting dues.

The measure does not have good chances of becoming law, though, as the Democratic-controlled House is unlikely to support it. Additionally, some GOP lawmakers have been wary of it.

Retirement

Initially, the teachers union opposed Senate Bill 200, which would cut public employee retirement benefits to shore up the state’s retirement plan.

But Dallman said the union changed its stance after the House finance committee addressed most of its concerns, such as removing a defined contribution option, which would have allowed eligible employees to opt out of the pension and join a plan similar to a private-sector 401(k).

Additionally, the initial bill would have raised the retirement age to 65 from 58. The House finance committee settled for 60.

But Dallman qualified the union’s support, saying it is still concerned that cost-of-living raises would be temporarily suspended. When they return, they would be bumped down to 1.25 percent annually compared to 2 percent.

What they’re going to do next

Teachers are expected to hit the Capitol again on Thursday and Friday, asking lawmakers to make a long-term commitment to increase funding.

Over a half-dozen school districts across the state, including the three largest, are canceling classes or sending students home early because there won’t be enough teachers.

The Jefferson County Public Schools will close Thursday. At least eight schools will close Friday, including Cherry Creek School District, Brighton 27J, Douglas County School District and Adams 12 Five Star Schools. Brighton 27J alone has 487 staff members who put in leave for the day.

Denver Public Schools will remain open Friday but classes will be released early.

The final lists of school districts participating and potentially canceling school has not been finalized.

Instead of rallying, others will be holding walk-ins at their schools. Groups will gather before the day starts to talk about issues impacting the schools. They will then hold signs and walk-in together en-masse.

The influence of national protests

Much of the momentum was born out of similar moves by teachers across the country. On Feb. 22, public school teachers walked out of classrooms in West Virginia for a strike that lasted nine consecutive days. The protest ended after the state’s governor signed a bill giving state teachers and other school staff a 5 percent pay raise.

West Virginia ranks 48th when it comes to teacher salaries, paying an average annual wage of $45,622 in 2016. That’s $533 less than Colorado.

The West Virginia teachers inspired similar strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky.

Dallman said the lobbying day on Friday is an annual event that was already planned. But the national action has buoyed the day, creating a level of support that the group hasn’t seen before.

“Certainly what happened in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky has fired up public school educators but the truth of the matter is we’ve been suffering from cuts in our schools and classrooms since 2009,” she said. “The fact so many are coming is a real testament to the growing frustration of public school educators in the state of Colorado.”

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