Situation Normal

Colorado teachers unions will feel a limited impact from the Supreme Court’s Janus decision

Teachers and supporters strike in Pueblo, Colorado, earlier this year. Pueblo is one of the few Colorado teachers unions that collects fees similar to those at issue in the Janus case. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Colorado’s teachers unions have been living in a post-Janus world for decades.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 is being widely interpreted on the left and the right as a blow to public sector unions, including teachers unions. The decision means that states and school districts will no longer be able to require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf.

Nationally, this could mean fewer teachers joining unions and paying dues, leading to a loss of political power for organizations that have traditionally supported Democratic candidates. The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers are preparing for budget and staff reductions. But with the exception of a few districts, teachers unions in Colorado don’t collect these fees.

Teacher unions exist in a legal middle ground in Colorado, with collective bargaining and the right to strike but without a formal recognition process or the ability to require non-members to pay fees that some private-sector unions have. For the most part, teachers either join the union and pay their dues or don’t join and don’t pay anything. That has limited the power of teachers unions in Colorado, but it also means the Janus decision has limited impact here.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president-elect of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, looks for the positive angle behind these limitations.

“I think it has made us stronger as a state because we have to go out to individual educators and explain to them the benefits of belonging,” she said. “Explaining the strength of that solidarity has been powerful for us.”

The Colorado Education Association has roughly 35,000 members, the large majority of them classroom teachers. They represent about 64 percent of the teachers in the state.

That silver lining doesn’t mean union leaders are happy with the decision. State and local unions can expect less support from their national organizations going forward, including in key electoral contests. The decision also undoes decades of precedent that bolstered the position of public sector unions, who now make up half of all unionized workers in America.

“Our biggest concern is not the financial side of things but the ideological side of things, that this is an attack on workers and workers’ families and workers’ ability to come together and have a collective voice,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo’s College of Law, said the positive spin that some are trying to put on the decision – that it will force unions to become more responsive to their members and more democratic in their governance, to their long-term benefit – isn’t borne out in states that haven’t required such fees. It’s not uncommon in some states for a majority of workers to vote to unionize but for only a minority to agree to pay dues, he said.

“I’m all in favor of those things, but I’m skeptical because we have examples of states becoming right-to-work states, and we haven’t seen a significant revitalization of the labor movement,” he said. “This is going to hurt the labor movement.”

Today’s court ruling could have the most impact in Pueblo, a traditional union stronghold in Colorado, a state with a history of bloody mining strikes. Membership in the teachers union is high, and the contracts there include fees similar to the ones at stake in the Janus case.

In May, teachers in Pueblo went out on strike – the first time Colorado teachers have done so since 1994 – and secured a 2 percent raise for part of the 2017-18 school year and another 2.5 percent increase for 2018-19, among other concessions.

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, said 75 percent of teachers belong to the union, and while that’s down from 80 percent a few years ago, new members joined during the strike as they saw the union forcing the school board to the bargaining table.

Pueblo 60, which serves the city, and Pueblo 70, which serves the surrounding county, are among a handful of Colorado districts where the contracts include “representation fees,” a fee that’s analogous to the agency fees at issue in the Janus case.

A 1977 Supreme Court decision found that workers cannot be forced to join a union, but they can be forced to pay a fee to cover the cost of reaching collective bargaining agreements from which they benefit. Unions say this prevents a free-rider problem, while critics, including Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois who is the plaintiff in the case, say it impinges on their free speech because such negotiations are inherently political.

The representation fees collected in the Pueblo school districts have been part of the contracts for decades and exist for a similar purpose. Teachers can opt out of paying the fees during a window at the beginning of each school year, and some do.

Ethredge said she’s been advised that the representation fees are probably unconstitutional now, and that going forward, workers will have to opt in and will be able to join or leave the union at any point in the school year. But she anticipates a “bookkeeping nightmare” rather than a large drop in membership. The fees probably do contribute to the high rate of membership, she said, but they’re just one factor.

“We have that culture built into Pueblo, and as an association, we’ve been able to build a culture that belonging is important,” she said. “It gives you somewhere to go when something goes wrong. We’re like homeowner’s insurance. You hope you never need us, but we’re here if you do.”

She worries about the impact of the decision on the national union, which provided logistical and moral support during the strike, as well as a $15,000 grant to support the community school model, which offers a range of programming and services for families, at one district middle school.

The Pueblo strike energized teachers, but the Janus decision comes in a year when Colorado’s teachers unions have seen mixed results from their political efforts. Last November, union-backed candidates won majorities on several local school boards and made inroads on others, but the union’s preferred gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, came in a distant second.

This spring, riding a wave of national activism, red-shirted union members – along with some non-unionized teachers – flexed their muscle in large rallies at the Capitol to call for more school funding, better pay, and the protection of retirement benefits. But the pension compromise adopted in the final hour of the legislative session, which raised the retirement age from 58 to 64 for new teachers, dealt the union a painful blow.

Ethredge makes no bones about it. If unions are to maintain their influence, teachers need to join – and pay their dues.

“Membership is power,” she said. “There is no getting around that.”

out of pocket

Pencils, shelving, wiggly chairs: What Colorado teachers bought for their classrooms — and why

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry provided the pencil totes, floor dots, balls and wiggle seats, and everything you see on the shelves out of her own pocket.

The rugs and bean bag chairs, the workboxes full of hands-on learning games, the file folders that help her track student progress — all came out of special education teacher Laura Keathley’s own pocket.

Robyn Premo, a high school science teacher, buys styrofoam and cans, glass rods and balloons, patches of fur and s’mores ingredients — just about all the materials except beakers that her students need to do hands-on experiments.

Marcea Copeland-Rodden, a middle school social studies teacher, bought an air-conditioning unit for her classroom because it was so hot students were getting bloody noses.

And everyone buys loads and loads of pencils.

“I don’t think that not having a pencil is a reason a kid should not learn today,” Premo said.

There’s nothing new about teachers spending money on their classrooms, but as rising housing prices and stagnant wages put more pressure on working families and as academic expectations rise even in kindergarten, teachers have to dig deep to meet their students’ basic needs and outfit their school rooms.

A national survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that 94 percent of teachers spend their own money for their students, with the average teacher spending $479 in the 2015-16 school year, the most recent data available.

When the Colorado Education Association surveyed more than 2,000 members in 2017, they reported spending an average of $656 out of their own pocket on classroom supplies.

The usual caveat applies: These numbers are self-reported.

To better understand what this looks like in Colorado classrooms, Chalkbeat reached out to teachers around the state to ask how much they spent out of pocket, what they bought, and why.

The teachers who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey work in districts large and small, urban and rural, and spent anywhere from $75 to $2,000. Most respondents spent several hundred dollars, and the majority said they do not get a stipend for school supplies.

Their spending covers the most basic of classroom supplies — pens, pencils, glue sticks, crayons, paper, folders, notebooks — but also the things that make classrooms feel inviting, that make learning engaging, that help a kid get through the day. Teachers bought snacks and spare clothes, earbuds for students to listen to audio books as part of reading lessons, wiggly chairs and yoga balls for fidgety learners, classroom decorations, tissues and wipes, prizes for good work and good behavior, fish for the fish tank, storage bins and shelving and fabric for makeshift blinds.

Premo teaches chemistry and physics at Westminster High School. Her department gets a $3,000 supply budget for the high school’s 2,400 kids. She emphasizes that she thinks her school is doing everything it can, but if she didn’t reach into her own pocket, her students would mostly experience science in online simulations.

“That is not, in my opinion, sufficient for rigorous, authentic science instruction, so I make the personal contributions to give my kids those learning opportunities,” she said.

Premo spent $2,000 getting ready for the school year, the most of any teacher who responded to Chalkbeat’s survey. She said she’s able to contribute more than many teachers, so she does.

“There are some fantastic online simulations, but kids learn better when they get to put their hands on things,” she said.

Fur patches help demonstrate static electricity, and s’mores help illustrate principles of chemical reactions. All these materials add up, and many of them are consumed in the process of lab work.

If Premo didn’t spend her own money, “we would run out of pencils very quickly. And we would run out of lab materials, and they would not be able to do anything hands-on. And we would lose our ability to be creative. We would work very bare-bones. It would be a lot of listening, a lot of videos.”

Laura Henry teaches kindergarten in Aurora Public Schools. It’s her 29th year in the classroom, and as kindergarten has moved away from play and more toward academics, she’s spent more and more of her own money on curriculum supplies.

Her school provides $500 a semester to each grade level, which has to be shared among three teachers, and the money goes fast. Teachers also get $10 a month for copying, which she burns through quickly, so she bought her own printer just for school use.

Because most of the students come from low-income families, the school tries to keep the school supply list modest, closer to $25, but only about three-quarters of the students bring in supplies.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Aurora kindergarten teacher Laura Henry’s classroom after it has been cleaned during the summer. With the exception of the red shelf, a few alternative seating items, and the pencil coat rack, these items are school purchased.

She spent about $500 of her own money getting ready for the school year, on everything from folders to hold student poems to snacks and wipes to materials for dramatic play, building toys, puppet theater, books, and more.

“Kindergarten is supply-heavy because we use construction paper and glue like there is no tomorrow,” she said.

Many of our survey respondents said they don’t use online fundraisers like Donors Choose because the only people who donate are friends and family, and teachers feel bad hitting them up over and over again. Henry encounters the same dilemma, but she did turn to it this year for $550 in science and engineering supplies: gears, a light table, animal X-rays, a microscope and more.

Another advantage of Donors Choose: The money she puts into it herself is tax deductible, unlike the rest of what she spends on her classroom.

PHOTO: Laura Henry
Kindergarten teacher Laura Henry purchased the housekeeping table and chairs, everything on the wall and shelves, the books in the bin, tool bench, and playground buckets for her Aurora classroom.

Henry said she used to sometimes feel resentful about spending her own money, when her friends get reimbursed for their work expenses, but now she “rolls with it” as part of the teaching profession.

But she sees the lack of supplies as one more stumbling block for young teachers.

“I see these new teachers come in, and they’re so ready and eager to make a difference, and they don’t know how they get supplies or how they get copies,” she said. “I don’t know that our school board is even fully aware of how much we’re lacking at the classroom level. I don’t need 8,000 consultants to help me. I need my classroom funded.”

Keathley runs a multi-needs special education room with two paraprofessionals at Avery-Parsons Elementary in the Buena Vista district in the Arkansas Valley. She spent $485 getting the classroom ready this year. A lot of that money went to filing systems that help the teachers keep track of each student’s needs and progress. It also went to bulletin board supplies. These boards serve as the “411 wall” with everything kids need to know for the day, from what their classroom job is to what outside appointments they have.

PHOTO: Laura Keathley
The bulletin board in Laura Keathley’s Buena Vista classroom serves as a 411 wall for her students. She purchases all the supplies for the board herself.

Keathley and her team used their own money to outfit the “crash corner,” where students go when they need to decompress with fidget toys in a giant bean bag chair, and to make workboxes with activities that students can work on independently throughout the day.

Keathley said she hardly asks her parents for any school supplies.

“We know that a lot of times parents of kids with disabilities, we know their money goes other places and they spend so much on special things for their kids, we don’t want to ask them,” she said.

Without her own investment in the classroom, it would be a very different place.

“I could go with what the school provided me and stay within my budget, but my classroom would not be the place I would like it to be,” she said. “We wouldn’t have rugs. We wouldn’t have nearly the supplies to give snacks or do cooking in the classroom. Our desks would be much more utilitarian, and we wouldn’t have much on the walls.”

Copeland-Rodden teaches seventh grade social studies at Pueblo Academy of the Arts in southern Colorado.

She spent $500 this year, more than most, because she dropped $350 on the air conditioning unit. It might seem like an extravagance, but after years of buying more and more fans, for minimal relief, it felt like a necessity.

“It’s just really hot in the classroom,” she said. “We have kids get bloody noses, that’s how bad it is. By sixth and seventh period, everybody is done. They don’t do their work. They fall asleep. They get cranky and angry at each other. It makes it tough on everyone.”

She also bought materials for Civil War shadow puppets and other projects that will make history come alive, but most of her classroom spending is on basic supplies. She doesn’t feel like she can ask parents, most of whom are low-income, to pay for supplies when she only has their child for one period a day. Out of 130 students, one brought in a box of tissues at the start of the school year.

“I spend so much on pencils,” she said. “It’s not just once. I go through a big 50-pack of pencils every month. Every class there’s at least one kid who has lost a pencil. I’ve given up trying to get back the pencils.”

She used to ask kids for something in exchange for the pencil to prompt them to return it, but too many kids had nothing to give.

“One boy said, ‘Here’s a shoe,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want your shoe,’” she said. “I have kids walking from class to class with nothing.”

Teaching has been this way for a long time, and the teachers who talked to Chalkbeat don’t see it changing anytime soon.

“If we all collectively agreed we weren’t going to pay for school supplies, maybe eventually someone would do something,” Premo said. “But I don’t want to risk this year’s kids to make that point.”

meet the candidates

These candidates are running for Detroit school board. Watch them introduce themselves.

Nine candidates are vying for two seats on Detroit's school board in November. Seven submitted photos.

One candidate tells of a childhood in a house without heat.

Another describes the two-hour commute he made to high school every day to build a future that would one day enable him to give back to Detroit.

A third says her work as a student activist inspired her to run for school board as a recent high school grad.

These candidates are among nine people vying for two seats up for grabs on Detroit’s seven-member school board on Nov. 6. That includes one incumbent and many graduates of the district.

Chalkbeat is partnering with Citizen Detroit to present a school board candidate forum Thursday, Sept. 20 from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., at IBEW Local 58, 1358 Abbott St., Detroit.

Participants will have the opportunity to meet each candidate and ask questions in a speed-dating format.

In anticipation of that event, Citizen Detroit invited each of the candidates to make a short video introducing themselves to voters. Seven candidates made videos.

Watch them here: