Why Colorado Teachers Are Walking Off The Job And Heading To The Capitol

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<p>Ryan Warner/CPR News</p>
<p>Teachers and supporters protesting outside the state Capitol Thursday April 26, 2018.</p>
Photo: Teacher Walk Out Denver State Capitol April 26 SB5
Teachers and supporters protesting outside the state Capitol Thursday April 26, 2018.

Updated 5:15 p.m. -- Thousands of teachers were expected to rally in Denver Thursday and Friday at the state Capitol as part of a burgeoning nationwide teacher revolt over low pay and insufficient funding for schools.

The bulk of the widespread walkouts will happen as a single-day demonstration Friday, but teachers from Douglas, Jefferson, Lake and Clear Creek counties protested Thursday.

Hundreds gathered Thursday morning, marching around the Capitol repeating chants like "Education is our right" and "We're not gonna take it anymore," and drawing honks from passing cars.

The walkout Thursday alone will affect more than 150,000 students. Twenty-six more districts will be closed Friday, with teachers using personal leave time to take off. That leaves parents scrambling to find alternative child care. Sitter services like Mother's Helpers in Denver say they've been flooded with calls in the last couple days from parents and have had to put parents on wait lists.

Kallie Leyba, head of the Douglas County Federation, helped organize teachers from the Douglas County school district. She estimates about 400 educators from the district made it to the protest, even though showing up may have cost them. Douglas County did cancel school for children, but it is still a work day for adults, so if they did not have a personal day, they were unable to attend.

While critics have teachers should stay on the job, no laws in Colorado prohibit teacher strikes. In response to recent national protests, a state Republican lawmaker proposed a measure docking teacher pay and threatening fines and jail time for striking. Democrats oppose it, and it's not expected to pass the politically divided legislature.

What The Teachers Want

Teachers are asking lawmakers to make up an $822 million shortfall in school funding that leaves the state spending well below the national average per pupil. One of them, Jeff Garkow, a social studies teacher at Columbine High School, took a bullhorn to the top of the Capitol steps to lead cheers, and said the moment calls for a stern, clear teacher voice because politicians don’t value education.

"I think it’s time the Colorado state legislature pays up," he said. "And unfortunately it’s the teachers who are really going to have to push them to do that."

Stephanie Vitulli, a drama teacher from Skyview Academy in Highlands Ranch, said current funding levels haven’t kept up with classroom needs.. She says there’s a regular impact in her classroom.

"I’m providing students with pencils and notebooks on a daily basis out of my own pocket, because they can’t learn if they can’t write it down," Vitulli said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper told CPR News on Thursday he’s sad to see students out of school this week because of the walk outs. But he sympathizes with teachers who have left their classrooms to protest a lack of money for schools.

“I think it’s what they feel they need to do and lord knows we need to figure out ways to pay them more," he said.

Colorado lawmakers from both parties have agreed to give schools their largest budget increase since the Great Recession. But teachers say that the state has a long way to go to make up for ground lost during the recession and before that due to the state's strict tax and spending limits imposed by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Hickenlooper said voters should change TABOR to increase teacher pay.

“Our kids are gonna be the future of our economy so we’re fools or just blind if we don’t and begin finding ways we can increase the compensation and if that means we’ve got to modify the ceiling on TABOR we probably need to do that," he said.

Colorado teacher salaries are set at the local level, and Republican state Sen. Kevin Lundberg says lawmakers aren’t trying to hurt public workers. "We’re trying to help them. We’re trying to ensure that what they are expecting will be available for them."

​"If they expect some immediate solution to what they think is lack of adequate pay, we’re not not the folk to be talking to." -- The right people, he says, are local school board members. But Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod says disagreed.

"I think teachers need to be barking up every single tree. We are underfunding education at the state level. Our districts our underfunding teacher pay. And federally, we are not getting enough resources either," she said.

The average Colorado teacher earned $51,808 in 2017, according to the national teacher salary data.

Educators secured a $150 million annual boost to schools in this year's budget negotiations but want to wipe out an annual school funding shortfall within the next four years — known as the negative factor. After next year's boost, Colorado will underfund its schools by $672 million a year versus what's required by the state Constitution.

Complicating matters: Lawmakers are negotiating sweeping changes to the state and school pension fund, which will likely cut teacher retirement benefits and could decrease their take-home pay.

Educators say they hope their protests highlight that any changes to the pension fund could further erode their compensation. Republicans want public employees, including teachers, to put more of their own pay into the system to close a $32 billion funding gap. Democrats have countered with a plan to contribute $225 million in annual state funding to shore up the fund.

The protests have left some parents scrambling. Some districts are offering support for parents who can't get out of work to care for their children. Denver Public Schools, which close on Friday, has set up a hotline. But it's not clear if there are nearly enough options to handle an influx. Community groups are organizing day camps, churches are opening for free care and some stay-at-home parents are volunteering to watch others' children.

The walkouts are the climax of an uprising that began weeks ago with the grass-roots movement known as #RedForEd spreading west from West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Teachers in Arizona walked out on Thursday as well.

CPR's Ann Marie Awad, Sam Brasch, Xandra McMahon, Michelle P. Fulcher and Ryan Warner contributed reporting.