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A silhouette of Denver teachers walking the picket line during the 2019 teachers strike.

Denver teachers walk the picket line during February’s teachers strike.

RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

Union survey: Many Colorado teachers willing to walk out to protest school funding

Colorado’s largest teachers union says most of its members are prepared to participate in walk-outs if the state does not significantly increase education funding and teacher pay.

In its first Colorado State of Education report, the Colorado Education Association laid out a number of legislative priorities for 2020 based on a member survey and a 13-stop listening tour around the state. Topping the list: Improving teacher pay.

Teacher pay in Colorado ranks among the least competitive in the nation when compared with other professions that require a college degree, and turnover rates have risen since the Great Recession, when lawmakers started holding back money the state constitution promises to schools to pay for other budget priorities.

This withholding, known as the budget stabilization factor or the negative factor, exceeds $8 billion over the last decade. In his proposed 2020-21 budget, Gov. Jared Polis recommended a budget stabilization factor of more than $500 million, even as he urged greater investments in transportation.

Other priorities identified by union educators include reducing class size and workload, changing the teacher evaluation system to one that is less reliant on test scores, and hiring more mental health professionals in schools.

The Colorado Education Association also asked members “how far” they were willing to go to achieve these goals, from talking to colleagues or wearing a button to going on strike. According to the union, half of respondents said they were willing to go on strike and 83% said they were willing to participate in a walkout.

These results don’t come from a statistically valid poll, but from a survey of some of the most engaged of the union’s 38,000 members. Nonetheless, union President Amie Baca-Oehlert said the results reflect pent-up frustration from educators around the state and a genuine appetite for what she called “bold action.”

In highlighting a willingness to walk off the job, Baca-Oehlert said the union is not making a threat, but trying to make it clear how strongly educators feel about this issue.

“I would not call it a threat,” she said. “I would call it a call to action and a call for collaboration.”

Enough teachers walked out in April 2018 that more than half of all schoolchildren in Colorado didn’t have classes during two Days of Action. Thousands of teachers rallied at the state Capitol, and others staged demonstrations in their communities.

Since then, teachers in Pueblo, Denver, and the mountain community of South Park have gone on strike. Teachers in Pueblo and Denver won many of their demands, while Park County teachers went back to work without a contract.

Union-supported candidates also won big in this month’s local school board elections, most notably in Denver, the state’s largest district, where candidates opposed to education reform policies now control the board for the first time.

However, the Colorado Education Association has struggled to translate teacher activism into concrete policy wins in the statehouse. The compromise on the state pension system, in which most teachers participate, after the 2018 Days of Action raised the retirement age and reduced benefits, steps the union decried. In 2019, an overhaul of the teacher evaluation system, a top union priority, failed to make it out of a Democratic-controlled legislative committee.

On the money front, two statewide measures – Amendment 73 and Proposition CC — that would have increased funding for schools failed in the last two years. Lawmakers have increased the amount of state money going to schools, but the state’s annual withholding remains above $500 million.

“It’s embarrassing that we have the strongest economy in the country, yet this is what our public schools look like,” Baca-Oehlert said, calling education funding a “crisis.”

Unlike other states that have seen statewide teacher strikes, the Colorado General Assembly does not set teacher pay. However, Baca-Oehlert said that does not mean lawmakers are powerless to improve salaries. In addition to increasing school funding, legislators could find creative ways to channel money to salaries, she said. For example, the state could create incentives for districts to raise pay locally, as Polis suggested in an interview on Colorado Public Radio Thursday.

Many school districts have raised teacher salaries in the last year, often with help from voters who approved property tax increases for that purpose. Those pay increases have not always kept pace with the cost of living, however.

One approach the union does not support is bonuses. It opposed a bill last session sponsored by Republican state Sen. Paul Lundeen to give pay boosts to teachers rated highly effective.

At a delegate assembly earlier this year, the Colorado Education Association started planning for walkouts that could last as long as a week to apply pressure at the state level, Baca-Oehlert said.

“Workers know that striking is a last resort, but educators across Colorado are prepared to make that hard choice for their students if this fundamental crisis is not fixed,” the report says.