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Denver Classroom Teachers Association teachers and supporters rally at the Colorado State Capitol on January 30, 2019, demanding better wages and urging the state not to get involved in a possible strike.

Denver Classroom Teachers Association teachers and supporters rally at the Colorado State Capitol on January 30, 2019, demanding better wages and urging the state not to get involved in a possible strike.

Mystery text messages urge Denver residents to tell Gov. Polis to block a teacher strike

Denver residents are receiving text messages from a group calling itself “Support Students, Support Teachers” that urge them to write Gov. Jared Polis and Denver school board members in support of a key aspect of the district’s pay proposal and in opposition to a strike.

The text message contains a link that takes readers to a pre-written letter, but nothing on the site describes who is behind it. A search of public records, social media, and sites that track political and advocacy spending found no group called Support Students, Support Teachers.  

The letter both urges Polis to intervene to prevent a strike and advocates that the district keep larger bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools, a key point of disagreement between the Denver school district and the teachers union.

Supporters of both the district and the union position are using text message campaigns to drum up support. The district has asked state labor officials and the governor to intervene, a move that could block a strike for up to 180 days. The union has asked the state to stay out, which would clear the way for a strike. Polis has until Feb. 11 to make a decision, but could act sooner.

The two sides are negotiating the terms of the ProComp system, which gives teachers incentives and bonuses on top of their base pay for things like working in a high-poverty school or having students with high test scores. Such pay-for-performance systems are often supported by education reform advocates and opposed by teachers unions.

In Denver, the union is arguing for smaller bonuses, with the difference being put into base pay, while the district maintains that larger bonuses help attract and keep teachers at challenging schools.

Many of the progressive groups that swept Colorado Democrats to office in November have lined up to support the teachers. The text message campaign in support of the union message comes from one of those groups, the Colorado Working Families Party, sometimes dubbed “the Tea Party of the left” for its efforts to help more progressive Democrats win primaries and pull the party to the left. Unions, along with individual members, provide funding for the group, which has been active in New York for years but is relatively new in Colorado.

The pro-union text includes a link that takes recipients to a page on the Action Network website affiliated with the Colorado Working Families Party. There, recipients can see other causes that the group has supported.

In contrast, the page hosting the pro-district letter contains no additional information about its backer. Searches of the Colorado Secretary of State’s website, Open Secrets, a site that tracks political spending, and the internet at large turn up no organization or even public presence that goes by the name “Support Students, Support Teachers.”

While messages in support of a political candidate generally have to disclose who paid for them, the same rules don’t apply to “issue communication” from advocacy groups.

The Federal Communications Commission strictly regulates automated bulk calls and texts, but there are exemptions for so-called “peer-to-peer” messages in which an actual person hits send on a pre-loaded text. Such messages, with or without proper disclosure, have become a common feature of recent political campaigns.

The pro-district, anti-strike text message comes from Phone2Action in Arlington, Virginia. Like Action Network, it provides tools for clients to share their message with the broader public using text messages, social media, and other means.

Union members voted to walk off the job Jan. 22 after negotiations with the school district over the ProComp agreement, broke down. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association wants the district to put significantly more money into teacher pay, adopt a salary schedule that allows teachers to get raises more quickly, and reduce the value of some bonuses and incentives, with the difference going into base pay.

If Denver teachers strike, it would be the first such labor action in Colorado’s largest school district in 25 years.