Ready to strike against low pay in the Mile High city

January 25, 2019

Carlos Valdez and Brandon Daniels talk to Denver teachers and union leaders about why they voted to become the next major city to go on strike.

DENVER TEACHERS voted to strike this week by an overwhelming margin following the failure of the district to address a crisis of teacher turnover.

The Denver Classroom Teacher Association (DCTA) represents around 5,000 teachers in Denver Public Schools (DPS) serving over 90,000 students. The strike vote by DCTA members comes on the heels of the victorious teachers’ strike in Los Angeles and ahead of a probable strike in Oakland, as well as statewide teacher rallies in Virginia and Indiana.

Denver teachers could head to the picket lines as early as Monday, January 28. But DPS officials have called on the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to intervene against the union.

During last year’s teachers rebellion, Colorado teachers walked out for a day in April. This day of action stopped an attack on public employee benefits, but it fell short of providing the raise that Colorado teachers need. A recent breakdown in bargaining with the Denver school district over teacher compensation pushed the union to begin strike preparations.

Educators take to the streets of Denver for the schools their students deserve
Educators take to the streets of Denver for the schools their students deserve (Denver Classroom Teachers Association)

While the themes of education justice such as smaller class sizes, teacher support services and halting the expansion of charter schools are present within this struggle, this fight is largely about the need for fair compensation. Teachers in Colorado are facing a housing crisis that has made surviving financially difficult.

As Tanessa Benjamin, a teacher at Amesse Elementary, explained, “The biggest problem facing Denver teachers is retention, and teacher retention is failing because of pay. Denver’s cost of living is skyrocketing. Teachers are being forced out of where they live because they can’t afford rent and housing costs.”

Denver’s metropolitan area, like Los Angeles and Oakland, is experiencing a rapid increase in housing costs. Since 2010, the cost of rent has risen 48 percent — the highest increase in the country outside the Bay Area — and more than one in four Denver residents spend half their paychecks on housing costs.

On top of the disrespect that teachers face from administrators, overbearing assessment practices and countless hours of unpaid work, Denver teachers are having the small wage increases they get for their dedication wiped away by this rampant housing inflation.

For many, these jobs are not enough to ensure security, and schools are unable to keep their classrooms fully staffed.

The Denver school district has a ">teacher turnover rate of 20 percent. Each year, thousands of teachers are leaving to teach elsewhere for higher pay or the profession of teaching altogether, and schools are often unable to ensure that the full range of classes are being taught by professionals.

BARGAINING BETWEEN the DCTA and DPS has stalled during negotiations over an experimental performance-based bonus system called ProComp.

This system is intended to provide financial incentives to teachers for meeting certain criteria, such as teaching at a school that is classified as “hard to serve” or meeting educational goals in routine evaluations. The DCTA is demanding that greater funding be added to the base salary of teachers, while the district is clinging to this unpopular and confusing compensation system.

In reality, ProComp resembles much of the neoliberal education reform that has been utilized around the country to attack public education. At its core, it’s a system that seeks to manipulate teachers with carrots (year-end bonuses) and sticks (denial of bonuses).

While it is promoted by think tanks as an innovative solution to the “problems of public education,” ProComp introduces uncertainty into the lives of teachers and worsens the conditions of learning. The already low base salary of teachers makes achieving these bonuses a necessity, but often the conditions that determine the bonus are out of the teacher’s control.

“Part of the problem is caused by changing demographics,” says Benjamin. “If your school loses students that qualify for free and reduced lunch, you no longer get a bonus. That’s money that you are losing out on. It is very hard to get a loan from the bank when you can’t tell them what your salary is going to be.”

While supposedly intended to promote teacher retention at schools that performed poorly in district assessments, the exact opposite effect is taking place. Teacher retention has fallen throughout the district, and dedicated teachers are forced to endure unpredictable changes in their pay.

Furthermore, Denver “education reform” has been accompanied by an increased reliance on administrators and testing.

Currently, Denver Public Schools employs at least one administrator for every 7.5 instructors — almost 50 percent higher that the statewide average. The high salaries of these administrators come at the direct expense of teachers’ compensation.

The LEAP assessment system is supposed to provide rewards for strong teachers and promote growth in others. In conjunction with ProComp, LEAP can mark a teacher as reaching a “distinguished” category and give them a bonus.

Jess Schneider, a teacher at Noel Community Arts School and someone who is responsible for assessment, stated:

What it takes to be distinguished through LEAP is difficult. It’s hard to maintain if you are not being supported in the way that you should be or need to be in order to maintain this ranking. We’ve had teachers experience tragedy in their personal life, and if they can’t keep up incredible teaching during a traumatic experience, then they’re going to get paid less.

They market LEAP as a growth tool, but you can never sit down with another teacher and talk about how they scored a two on a rubric, and have it really be about growing as a teacher. The only thing on that teacher’s mind is: “Now I’m going to get paid less.”

SOME 93 percent of teachers voted this week to authorize a strike. The decision came after months of informational pickets, #RedforEd days, and the organization of building leaders and strike captains.

Not too long ago, Denver teachers were apathetic about negotiations between DCTA and the district. In 2017, the master contract was passed without a fight from the rank and file.

“I was pretty involved in our master contract negotiation in 2017, but I wish I had been a little more active,” says Jennifer Holtzmann, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary. “I don’t think we should have came to an agreement, there was a lot of things where we gave more than we got.”

Between 2017 and today, however, teachers in the U.S. witnessed one of the most significant labor uprisings in recent years, starting in West Virginia and spreading across the country.

Colorado teachers learned from the example of West Virginia and walked out in 2018. Now that an example has been set for defending public education, Denver teachers have no reason to give more than they get.

Of course, the successful strike in Los Angeles, which ended victoriously on the same day Denver teachers voted to strike, has been another force pushing Denver teachers toward the picket lines. DCTA Vice President Christina Medina told Socialist Worker about the impact of the LA strike.

We see it as “That’s where we are going” — having them and also the teachers in Pueblo, who recently were on strike. Sometimes, there’s an uncertainty, and then we realize Pueblo did it and LA is doing it now. It gives us hope, it makes us think we can do this.”

UNFORTUNATELY, LOS Angeles and Denver are similar in more ways than this. Both metropolitan areas are victims of privatization and the underfunding of public education. The charter school industry siphons resources from public schools and divides the bargaining power of teachers.

Holtzmann reflected on the connection between Denver and LA:

When I read more into the LA strike and how they got to where they are at, you could have just replaced LA with Denver and Beutner with [former DPS Superintendent Tom] Boasberg. It was the exact same story: board members being bought by private money. Private money finds its way in to public education, buys board seats and then you get an increase in charter schools and an increase in the gap between white students and Black and Brown students.

For the past two decades, public education has been systematically attacked in every city across the country. The strikes of the last year have offered an alternative to standing by and watching the end of public education. Teachers provide an essential service for our communities, and when they are fighting for their livelihoods, they are fighting for their students.

When asked if she would be willing to strike, Holtzmann responded:

I don’t want to leave my classroom, and I can’t even think about how much I’ll be behind on when I come back. But I have to. I have to strike. They’re not listening, and the only way they will listen is if we use our power and our voice to show them we are valuable.

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