Hundreds of teachers protesting at the Capitol today — one district has canceled classes entirely

Hundreds of Colorado teachers will descend on the Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and for protecting teachers’ retirement benefits.

Morning sunlight gleams through the Capitol building, Dec. 12, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Ann Schimke, Chalkbeat

In the midst of a wave of teacher activism across the country, educators in Colorado are joining the fray by putting more pressure on lawmakers, calling attention to school funding shortfalls — and in one case forcing a school district to cancel classes by walking off the job.

Hundreds of Colorado teachers will descend on the Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and for protecting teachers’ retirement benefits. The leader of the state teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, said the union had originally planned this as a “Lobby Day” because changes to the retirement plan are being heard in a House committee.

The mass walkout in the suburban Englewood district south of Denver grew out of a local grassroots effort there, not a campaign by the state union. The same holds true with the growing movement of teacher activism across the U.S., with minimal to no union involvement and organizing being done largely on Facebook.

“This planning and organizing has largely happened organically,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the state union. “These are teachers, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals that are fed up … with the chronic year-over-year underfunding of our schools.”

This new wave of teacher activism started in February with a nine-day strike in West Virginia that ultimately netted teachers a 5 percent pay raise. This month, Oklahoma teachers went on a nine-day strike that won them pay raises but did not overturn a capital gains tax repeal they’d opposed. On Wednesday, thousands of Arizona teacher wore red and rallied for higher pay and more education funding at walk-ins held before the school day started. Today, Kentucky teachers are holding a day of action at their state’s Capitol building.

Dallman said these efforts have energized Colorado teachers.

“The fact that these very conservative states have really been able to take this message to their state legislatures has been very empowering to our members,” she said.

Dallman said around 400 teachers have said they plan to attend the Lobby Day on Monday, but she expects the number to grow through the weekend. Participants will include teachers from Englewood and several other metro Denver districts, as well teachers from northern Colorado, the Eastern Plains, and some mountain town districts, she said. The rally will run from 10 a.m. to noon.

Officials at the 2,800-student Englewood district announced Thursday that they won’t hold classes on Monday because about 150 teachers – 70 percent – are expected to participate in the rally. Dallman said she’s heard that individual schools in other districts may close Monday due to teachers taking personal leave time to attend the rally, but said it wasn’t clear yet which ones.

In other Colorado districts on Monday, teachers will wear “red for public ed” and stage “walk-in” events at their schools to raise awareness about school funding shortfalls.

Dallman said the union wants the legislature to make a down payment of $150 million on the negative factor this year and commit to eliminating it by 2022. In addition, it wants significant changes to the retirement system overhaul approved by the Senate and under consideration next week by the House.

The negative factor is the amount by which Colorado underfunds its schools when compared to constitutional requirements. The state’s 2018-19 budget already includes that $150 million increase in school funding, but lawmakers have not committed to continuing increases in future years.

Monday’s rally and walk-ins come as simmering frustration among teachers in several Colorado districts has boiled over this spring. On Thursday, teachers union leaders in Pueblo threatened to strike after the school board voted down pay increases for teachers and paraprofessionals. Last month, Denver’s teacher union leaders voted to authorize a strike if they couldn’t reach a deal with the district. In the end, the two sides agreed to keep talking, but the union left the door open for a strike next January.

Both teachers and school district leaders have expressed frustration for years about what they see as an education funding crisis in Colorado — the product of a tangle of laws and constitutional measures that limit school revenue increases.

Evidence of the problem is easy to find. A recent report found that Colorado ranks last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. And recently some mid-sized districts have decided to switch to four-day school weeks as a way to ratchet up their appeal to teachers since significant salary bumps aren’t feasible. One of those districts is Pueblo, where the school board opted not to turn cost savings from the shorter school week into pay raises.

This November, Colorado voters could see a request for a major tax increase for education.  The measure would raise $1.6 billion by increasing the corporate tax rate and increasing income taxes for people who earn more than $150,000 a year, as well as changing how residential property is taxed for schools.

Still, there’s no guarantee the ballot initiative will pass. Voters have twice before rejected statewide school funding measures, most recently in 2013.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.