Capitol Report: Thousands of teachers rallied at the Capitol, but no one knows what comes next

BY ERICA MELTZER – April 30, 2018

Good afternoon and welcome to another edition of Capitol Report.

We’re getting into the home stretch, that point where everyone starts to panic a little at how many bills are still outstanding.

Two big ones are the overhaul of the public employees retirement system and a Republican-backed transportation spending bill. Both bills have implications for education down the road. Concern about retirement benefits is one thing that drew thousands of teachers to the Capitol, and money that’s committed to roads isn’t available for education in future budgets.

This past week, the House passed a series of bipartisan bills aimed at addressing the teacher shortage that head now to the Senate. They’re scheduled to be heard in the Senate State Affairs Committee, which isn’t necessarily as ominous as it would be earlier in the session. For scheduling reasons, the Senate routes all bills through just three committees in the final weeks of the sessions, one of them being State Affairs, which is usually a “kill committee.”

Of course, the big news this week was the teacher rallies that took place Thursday and Friday. Enough teachers put in leave requests that more than 600,000 students were out of class on one or the other of those days. The numbers at the Capitol, while impressive, were nothing like the estimated 30,000 teachers who confronted lawmakers in Arizona. The big unanswered question is: What’s next?

A long time. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Democratic gubernatorial candidates were there to show their solidarity. Cary Kennedy, the former state treasurer who has the endorsement of the teachers unions, addressed the crowd from the steps of the Capitol. Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, who is considered, let’s say, problematic by some teachers because he wrote Colorado’s educator effectiveness law, was also there. I didn’t catch up with him personally, but his state organizing director said Johnston got a “very warm reception,” with teachers expressing “gratitude and excitement” that someone who has been a classroom teacher might be governor.

Some critics questioned teachers’ timing and choice of target. The budget has already been approved, and the session is nearly over. The 2018-19 budget gives more money to K-12 education than Colorado has spent in years, and local school districts, not the state, have the ability to turn some of that money into teacher pay raises or more classroom resources.

Perhaps ironically, the same week that teachers marched on the Capitol, two big ideas to change how Colorado funds its schools met premature ends. State Rep. Dave Young asked the House Education Committee to postpone indefinitely his bill that would have created a new distribution formula, provided voters approve a tax increase for schools in November. Most of Colorado’s superintendents backed the proposal, which was unveiled earlier this year with great fanfare, but Young said he couldn’t find bipartisan support to pass it in a form acceptable to those same superintendents.

And on the Joint Budget Committee, state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and state Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, decided not to move forward with a bill that would have created incentives for local school districts to tax themselves more and free up more state money to go toward districts that really need outside assistance. Hamner said there isn’t political support right now for this effort, which has been a years-long project for the two lawmakers. A frustrated Rankin said he wouldn’t have voted for the School Finance Act if he had realized there would be no attempt to address inequities in the local share.

Coming up this week, there’s also a hearing on a bill that would ban teacher strikes in Colorado. The sponsor, state Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, plans to remove the most controversial provision, one that would jail teachers who remain on strike in violation of a court order. Nonetheless, he views teachers as performing a vital public function, one that justifies compelling them to stay on the job.

As teachers rallied at the Capitol, state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, said teacher strikes can have long-term consequences for students. He “washed out of accelerated math” because he couldn’t keep up after missing two weeks of school due to a teachers strike. When it was noted that didn’t stop him from serving on the Joint Budget Committee, he joked that just involves adding and subtracting.

That’s what we’ve got. Read on.

– Erica Meltzer, bureau chief

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