Denver Teacher: I’m On Strike to Build a Nationwide Movement for Public Schools

Hayley Breden in conversation with Michael Arria

Bear Valley International School language arts teacher Kaitlin Christenson, left, and math teacher Meghan Clapp, right, lead a chant at an educator and community rally at the Colorado State Capitol on February 11, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Denver teachers are striking for the first time in 25 years after the school district and the union representing the educators failed to reach an agreement after 14 months of contract negations over teacher pay. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

On Feb­ru­ary 11, pub­lic school teach­ers in Den­ver, Col­orado went on strike after 15 months of attempt­ed nego­ti­a­tions with the school dis­trict. The Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents the city’s 5000-plus teach­ers, is look­ing for high­er salaries and changes to the dis­tricts bonus sys­tem, in which extra mer­it pay” for teach­ers is cal­cu­lat­ed in a vague and incon­sis­tent way.

On a wider lev­el the Den­ver strike is an attempt to push back against the city’s recent poli­cies of edu­ca­tion pri­va­ti­za­tion, which have all but engulfed the region. Accord­ing to a 2017 report from Chalk­beat, there are 104 pub­lic schools in Den­ver and 117 char­ter and inno­va­tion” schools. Inno­va­tion schools are oper­at­ed by the dis­trict but they do not have to abide by all the rules that have been estab­lished in the teach­ers’ union con­tract. Accord­ing to the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, Col­orado teach­ers rank 46th in the nation in pay.

Hay­ley Bre­den is a high school social stud­ies teacher and found­ing mem­ber of the Cau­cus of Today’s Teach­ers, a group made up of Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion mem­bers that pro­motes poli­cies of social jus­tice and anti-racism. She spoke with In These Times about the school pri­va­ti­za­tion, the polit­i­cal cli­mate and how oth­er teacher work stop­pages inspired this one.

Michael Arria: The pri­ma­ry dis­agree­ment between the union and the school dis­trict seems to be about how base pay is cal­cu­lat­ed. Can you explain how the cur­rent sys­tem is set up and what the teach­ers are fight­ing to change?

Hay­ley Bre­den: We are fight­ing for two main changes. The first issue is for high­er aver­age salaries, espe­cial­ly for edu­ca­tors in the begin­ning of their careers. Our aver­age salaries are not com­pet­i­tive with near­by school dis­tricts. This con­tributes to Den­ver’s teacher turnover rate of over 20 per­cent. Nextdoor dis­trict Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, with near­ly the same num­ber of stu­dents, has a turnover rate of 14 per­cent in 2017 to 2018.

Sec­ond­ly, we are fight­ing for a reli­able salary sched­ule so that Den­ver edu­ca­tors can eas­i­ly under­stand and pre­dict their salaries each year. The cur­rent sys­tem relies heav­i­ly on incen­tives for work­ing in high pri­or­i­ty” schools [Title I schools] and bonus­es for high test scores and test score growth. The main prob­lem with the cur­rent sys­tem is that the thresh­olds which must be met each year in order to earn these bonus­es are changed almost annu­al­ly, as do schools’ Title I sta­tus­es. As a result, some teach­ers earn the Title I incen­tive as well as two bonus­es in one year, and then earn no incen­tives or bonus­es the fol­low­ing year. This can be solved by pro­vid­ing edu­ca­tors with high­er base pay dis­trict-wide, rather than rely­ing on a sys­tem which essen­tial­ly caus­es schools and teach­ers to com­pete for bonus money.

Michael: This actions comes on the heels of teach­ers’ strikes and work stop­pages in West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, Ken­tucky and Ari­zona. Most recent­ly teach­ers in Los Ange­les went on strike. Can you speak to how these actions inspired Den­ver teach­ers and what you learned from some of their tactics?

Hay­ley: From all of these strikes and walk­outs, we have been empow­ered by the mean­ing­ful change that has been cre­at­ed by these edu­ca­tors. While very inspir­ing, these events also brought more pub­lic atten­tion and engage­ment to the issue of stu­dents’ learn­ing con­di­tions and teach­ers’ work­ing con­di­tions. Stu­dents, par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers are becom­ing engaged in a more proac­tive, urgent way in the face of increas­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion and dis­man­tling of our pub­lic schools here in Den­ver thanks to this new nation­al move­ment for pub­lic schools.

From the teach­ers in Los Ange­les, my col­leagues in the Cau­cus of Today’s Teach­ers [a pro­gres­sive, social jus­tice cau­cus with­in the Den­ver Class­room Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion] have placed a renewed empha­sis on the need for a demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly orga­nized, mem­ber-dri­ven union that is proac­tive in a vari­ety of social jus­tice issues, not just teacher pay. 

Michael: Unlike oth­er loca­tions where strikes have tak­en place, offi­cials have kept schools open and are using sub­sti­tutes. Why do you believe they made that deci­sion? Do you per­ceive it as a tac­tic that is being used to help break the strike?

Hay­ley: Many of the sub­sti­tutes that were sent to Den­ver schools today were actu­al­ly some of the many cen­tral office employ­ees of Den­ver Pub­lic Schools. This is impor­tant to note because many of those employ­ees sup­port DCTA’s [Den­ver Class­rooms Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion] side of the con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, and they were told they must serve as sub­sti­tute teach­ers or else face cor­rec­tive action.” 

I think this tac­tic can be seen as a way to help fam­i­lies who face sig­nif­i­cant hard­ships when schools are closed, but it cer­tain­ly does not help to build sol­i­dar­i­ty and team­work among all DPS employ­ees. Those of us on the pick­et lines under­stood and sym­pa­thized with our non-DCTA col­leagues who had lit­tle choice but to cross the pick­et lines. Based on today’s stu­dent report­ing and local news cov­er­age, the qual­i­ty edu­ca­tion dur­ing the strike that was promised by our super­in­ten­dent did not occur.

Michael: Can you talk about some of the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion you’ve faced on this? I under­stand there was a Repub­li­can attempt to out­law a strike before it happened.

Hay­ley: Last spring after the April statewide teacher walk­out in Col­orado, a leg­is­la­tor from out­side of Den­ver [Rep. Paul Lun­deen] intro­duced a bill that would have effec­tive­ly banned teacher strikes. How­ev­er, that quick­ly failed. 

Much of the polit­i­cal oppo­si­tion has been with­in the so-called lib­er­al Den­ver com­mu­ni­ty. Much of the dis­agree­ment has to do with vast­ly dif­fer­ent views on what it takes to build a tru­ly equi­table school sys­tem. Myself and my col­leagues believe that bonus pay based on stu­dent test scores and incen­tives for teach­ers who work in Title I schools is just a band-aid and mean­ing­less attempt to fix more sys­temic issues like gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, income inequal­i­ty, and the need for a liv­ing wage for all people.

Peo­ple who may iden­ti­fy as Democ­rats but also sup­port the pri­va­ti­za­tion of our schools have argued that extra pay for teach­ers in Title I schools is a way to make schools more equi­table because putting more mon­ey into tra­di­tion­al­ly under­served com­mu­ni­ties is right. We dis­agree with that view because the teacher turnover rate in Title I schools is no dif­fer­ent – and high­er in some cas­es – than the dis­trict aver­age. It’s not a few hun­dred or even a cou­ple thou­sand dol­lars that keeps teach­ers in their schools. The answer is a school sys­tem in which schools are not closed and opened every few years. The answer is build­ing an econ­o­my that is sus­tain­able for all Den­ver families. 

Michael: Last­ly, I am won­der­ing what kind of response you’ve got­ten from the com­mu­ni­ty in response to the strike.

Hay­ley: While we did receive a few thumbs down” and oth­er neg­a­tive ges­tures from dri­vers pass­ing our pick­et lines today, the com­mu­ni­ty sup­port for bet­ter teacher com­pen­sa­tion has been over­whelm­ing and so empow­er­ing. At the most recent school board meet­ing a few weeks ago, there were three hours of pub­lic com­ment, all of which was com­plete­ly sup­port­ive of Den­ver’s teach­ers and stu­dents. Stu­dents at sev­er­al schools held walk­outs today, join­ing their teach­ers on the pick­et lines in the fight for bet­ter teacher retention.

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