On Monday, more than 5,000 teachers, parents and students from public schools across Denver took part in a festive rally on the steps of the Colorado state capitol. The demonstration marked the first day of a teacher strike to demand higher base salaries and a pay scale system that’s clear, predictable and that will allow teachers to afford to live in the neighborhoods where they work.
Despite freezing temperatures, the mood at the capitol was energized, the air filled with chants, a lively brass band and a stream of enthusiastic honks from passing cars. Demonstrators wore red hats and parkas, a nod to the growing national “Red for Ed” movement, and carried signs with slogans such as “You can’t put students first if you put teachers last” and “A is for Apple. B is for Raise.” Supporters offered free coffee, tamales and donuts, or sold snacks as fundraisers for school groups. One message emerged loud and clear: Teachers would rather be in the classroom, but the strike was too important.
After more than 15 months of negotiations with Denver Public Schools (DPS) failed to result in an agreement over its pay-for-performance compensation schedule, on Jan. 22, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association voted to strike for the first time in 25 years.
“We’re disappointed that the DCTA walked away from the table,” DPS said in a statement, claiming its updated proposal aligns with its values of equity and significantly increases base pay. The union said in a statement that the district’s proposals “exacerbate the problems educators are trying to fix” and that the salary maintains “unpredictable bonuses that disrupt our students’ education.” While DPS claimed that 2,631 of the 4,725 teachers working in non-charter schools walked off, the union says about 3,700 educators and special service providers have participated in the strike.
“We need a transparent pay schedule from our district so we know what to expect and when, and how to budget accordingly,” said Shawn Hann, a drama teacher at Denver School of the Arts. She said that the district’s current incentive-based pay system, ProComp, is unwieldy, with a complicated bonus system that leads to unpredictable paychecks.
Hann also claimed Denver teacher salaries aren’t keeping pace with the city’s skyrocketing cost of living. She has a master’s degree and has taught for 25 years, but hasn’t gotten a meaningful raise in ten years. She says she’s lucky enough to own a small house in Denver that she bought in 2003, but she now lives paycheck to paycheck. In 2017, the average salary for Colorado teachers was $51,808, which ranks 31st in the nation. According to USA Today, Colorado’s cost of living is the 19th highest.
Hann’s story isn’t unusual. Many teachers confessed to taking on multiple side jobs to support themselves, or having to rely on a higher-earning partner. Kahlea Qualls, a music teacher at Carson Elementary, works overnight shifts at a hotel to supplement her income. Meaghan Quigley lives almost an hour away from her job at Denver School of the Arts and never works fewer than 80 hours per week over the summer. Stacey O’Neil, who works at Slavens School, said that if not for her husband’s paycheck, she wouldn’t be able to support her kids.
One result of the strike is that teachers are finally able to discuss their struggles openly. “That’s the hardest part. A lot of times we don’t want to talk about it, to admit that this profession doesn’t treat us with integrity,” said Hann. “This is the first time I’ve talked about my paycheck in 25 years.”
Several demonstrators held signs imploring DPS to respect and protect immigrant teachers, referring to a leaked email the district sent some schools in late January. The email warned schools that educators on certain kinds of work visas would be reported to immigration authorities if they chose to strike. After a local racial justice advocacy group published the email online, community outrage was swift. The district quickly apologized for the email, which DPS spokesperson Will Jones said was a mistake based on a misinterpretation of information. But the damage, in the form of distrust and fear, was done.
Carlos Valdez, an organizer for the International Socialist Organization and a high school teacher for a nearby district, said that the email was an intimidation tactic. “We saw it as [the district] trying to divide teachers when it came time to strike, and trying to weaken their power out here in the streets,” he said. “They claim to support equity in schools with high poverty rates and with black and brown students, but then they attack and threaten teachers who are immigrants and who are black or brown.”
In a statement released in January, DPS superintendent Susana Cordova said, “As a school district, we have been resolute in our opposition to sharing any information that could negatively impact the rights of our immigrant populations and strongly believe that sharing such information would run directly counter to our core beliefs.”
Valdez also complained about the district’s high number of administrative positions compared to teaching jobs. Colorado Department of Education data shows that DPS employs one administrator for every 7.5 instructional staff members, a rate Valdez called “ridiculous.” (The state average is one administrative position for every 11.3 instructors.) Valdez said that many of those administrative positions go towards the district’s push for more school choice in Denver. “Choice is really just a coded word for privatization,” he said.
On its website, DPS announced that classes would carry on as usual Monday for all students except preschoolers, for whom the district doesn’t have enough trained educators to teach during the strike. For others, it promised “grade- and subject-specific lesson plans so that guest teachers can teach high-quality lessons to students.” But a group of students from the Denver School of Innovation and Sustainable Design said one administrator-led class was little more than a study hall—and they used it as an opportunity to practice a bit of civil disobedience of their own.
“We were being loud to intentionally disrupt school,” said senior Max Pliskin. “If it runs normally and the teachers aren’t there, then the strike loses power. The whole point is that school can’t run without teachers, and so by being disruptive, the goal was to make things not function.” Pliskin and some friends were ultimately suspended for their behavior, and chose to spend the rest of their day visiting the capitol in support of their teachers.
Evan Shaw, another senior, said the strike offers plenty to learn outside the classroom. “I think this is a great opportunity to show students that collective bargaining and unions are good for people, they’re good for the workers, they help give you more money, more rights, more freedom. It’s unions that got us the weekend and the 40-hour workday. I think it’s a great opportunity for people to see that they should be working together.”
Negotiations resumed Tuesday morning, but as of publication, the strike is still ongoing.