Colorado Teachers Are Mad as Hell—And Now They’re out on Their First Strike in Decades

Rachel M. Cohen

Teachers and supporters strike outside East High School on May 7, 2018 in Pueblo, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Teach­ers in Pueblo, Col­orado have been on strike for the past five days in a his­toric work action. They’re call­ing for 2 per­cent cost-of-liv­ing increas­es — a demand sup­port­ed by a neu­tral fact-find­er who deter­mined that the school dis­trict could afford such raises.

It’s the first teach­ers’ strike in Col­orado since 1994, and it comes just weeks after some of the largest teacher orga­niz­ing efforts in the state in decades.

Teacher pay in Col­orado ranks 31st in the coun­try, with the aver­age edu­ca­tor earn­ing just under $53,000, accord­ing to the state’s edu­ca­tion depart­ment. As Chalk­beat Col­orado notes, some school dis­tricts in the state have aver­age salaries above $70,000, while oth­ers are clos­er to $30,000.

On April 26 and 27, thou­sands of teach­ers from across Col­orado poured into Den­ver, the state cap­i­tal, to call on leg­is­la­tors to increase fund­ing for teach­ers and schools. Those ral­lies weren’t tech­ni­cal­ly strikes — edu­ca­tors pre­fer the term walk­outs” — since school dis­tricts closed before­hand and many teach­ers used their per­son­al days to attend. The Col­orado Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, the state’s largest teacher union, says that pub­lic schools are under­fund­ed by $822 mil­lion, and that per-pupil spend­ing stands at $2,700 less than the nation­al average.

Mike Maes, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of the Pueblo Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, told In These Times that over the course of the past week their strike has real­ly evolved into a com­mu­ni­ty move­ment.” On Wednes­day rough­ly 1,000 teach­ers, stu­dents and par­ents marched for miles around the city. There’s almost no words to describe it,” said Maes. More than 470 teach­ers vot­ed to strike, and just 24 vot­ed against it.

In late April, a Repub­li­can state sen­a­tor named Bob Gard­ner intro­duced a bill designed to pre­vent Col­orado teach­ers — like those in Pueblo — from going on strike. His leg­is­la­tion threat­ened teach­ers with job ter­mi­na­tions, fines and even jail time. The bill would have also blocked school dis­tricts from pay­ing any teacher for time they spent on strike. Gard­ner said his bill was inspired by the teacher strikes in West Virginia.

But the bill was quick­ly shot down, with even Gardner’s fel­low Repub­li­cans com­ing out in oppo­si­tion. With­in days, Gard­ner announced he would kill his own bill, say­ing there were too many oth­er items left for leg­is­la­tors to attend to this ses­sion. When The Den­ver Post asked Gard­ner at the end of April if he’d con­sid­er rein­tro­duc­ing the bill next year, he said much would depend on what hap­pens between now and Jan­u­ary of next year.” He added, if we have a teacher strike, I prob­a­bly will.” Sen. Gardner’s office did not return In These Times’ request for comment.

That said, teach­ers weren’t much threat­ened by Gardner’s bill.

It did more to mobi­lize our mem­bers than scare them,” Corey Kern, a spokesper­son for the Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, told In These Times.

Kallie Ley­ba, pres­i­dent of the Dou­glas Coun­ty Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers agreed. Nobody took that bill seri­ous­ly, not even the Repub­li­can cau­cus,” she told In These Times. Col­orado is a local con­trol state — mean­ing it’s ulti­mate­ly your school board mem­bers who would con­trol any sort of retal­i­a­tion. It wouldn’t come from the state-lev­el unless there was a law passed, and we knew that wasn’t going to pass.” Col­orado school board mem­bers and super­in­ten­dents — like those in West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa and Ari­zona — have been rel­a­tive­ly sup­port­ive of the teach­ers’ protests.

Maes, of the Pueblo Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, said con­cerns of retal­i­a­tion have not been at the fore­front of his mem­bers’ minds. Of course we’re always a bit con­cerned,” he said. But if there’s ret­ri­bu­tion we’ll stand up for ourselves.”

Colorado’s school fund­ing sit­u­a­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly chal­leng­ing com­pared to oth­er states. It is the only state in the coun­try to have a so-called Tax­pay­er Bill of Rights” law, which bars leg­is­la­tors from rais­ing tax­es with­out vot­er approval. We have incred­i­bly low prop­er­ty tax­es in Col­orado, and they con­tin­ue to go down,” said Ley­ba. As a result we have lost an incred­i­ble rev­enue stream for schools.”

In order to raise more edu­ca­tion fund­ing, advo­cates are work­ing to pass The Great Schools, Thriv­ing Com­mu­ni­ties bal­lot ini­tia­tive, a mea­sure that would gen­er­ate $1.6 bil­lion through tax increas­es on the state’s high­est earn­ers and cor­po­ra­tions. Advo­cates are cur­rent­ly work­ing to col­lect sig­na­tures. Due to a con­tro­ver­sial state amend­ment, teach­ers need to col­lect sig­na­tures from 2 per­cent of reg­is­tered vot­ers in every sen­ate dis­trict across Col­orado in order to secure the mea­sure on November’s ballot.

Col­orado is not a right-to-work state, but it’s not a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing state either.

Kern of the Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion says this essen­tial­ly means teach­ers in each dis­trict must fight for every right and pro­tec­tion they have, and a lot of dis­tricts are in dif­fer­ent points in that fight.” In Dou­glas Coun­ty, for exam­ple, teach­ers had col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for decades but lost them six years ago. Our mem­bers didn’t want to strike for a col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ment at the time in 2012,” said Ley­ba, the teacher union pres­i­dent. I think our mem­bers didn’t know how bad it was going to get.”

Accord­ing to Kern, there’s been a sharp increase in teacher mil­i­tan­cy since Trump was elect­ed. That woke up a lot of peo­ple, espe­cial­ly young folks,” he said. I think edu­ca­tors just reached their tip­ping point, and we’re see­ing a much more sup­port­ive par­ent com­mu­ni­ty too.” Den­ver teach­ers are cur­rent­ly locked in a con­tract dis­pute that Kern says could result in a strike vote next January.

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue