Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.
Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.
In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.
The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.
Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.
The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.
Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.
Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.
A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.
Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.
Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”
“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”
Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”
Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.
“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”
Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.