Taking solidarity to new heights in Colorado

April 30, 2018

Jonathan Cunningham reports from Colorado on last week's protests by teachers.

PUBLIC SCHOOLS were closed last week in Denver and in almost 30 other districts across Colorado, as teachers stayed out of the classroom by the thousands.

On Friday, April 27, protesting teachers took part in a march from East High School to the Colorado state Capitol building, followed by an afternoon rally so large that it spilled into neighboring Liberty and Civic Center Parks.

As thousands coalesced around the Capitol building in a sea of red for the event planned by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, it became clear that they were joined not just by other teachers, but by working people from all walks of life.

Representatives from the Denver Area Labor Federation, the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 9 and the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters were out and proudly supporting calls for more funding for teachers, including improved salaries and benefits and better classroom conditions.

The rally was planned as a follow-up to the walkout that happened a week before in response to a Senate bill that would gut benefits and increase retirement ages for public employees.

Teachers and students in Denver during a day of protests
Teachers and students in Denver during a day of protests (Elizabeth Wrigley-Field | SW)

On Thursday, April 26, Jefferson County closed all the schools in the district after more than 1,600 teachers took leave or a personal day.

TEACHERS WERE excited to be out marching, and put their focus on increasing funding for education. Madeline Che, an elementary school teacher who works outside of Durango, said "I drove six hours for three reasons: to improve school funding, for a fair and livable wage for teachers, and for a fully funded pension."

The Bayfield Elementary School teacher went on to say, "Teachers are doing the best we can with limited resources and we need everyone on board."

The walkout came a day after a proposal to change the funding structure for public education in Colorado. House Bill 18-1232, or the "New School Funding Distribution Formula," was postponed repeatedly in committee and lost its only sponsor.

"I'm walking out today because our state is woefully inadequate in terms of educational funding," David Barry of Eagleton Elementary in Denver. "We have a booming economy, and we're 46th in the nation in school funding. We feel it every day as teachers, and it's not fair that we're bound by these TABOR law tax reforms that we can't get enough funding for our schools."

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, is a constitutional measure that limits Colorado's spending according to a formula based on population growth and the rate of inflation. It has had a devastating effect on public services in Colorado, especially public education.

"On top of that, we work really hard, and we deserve better pay," Barry continued. "We deserve a stable retirement package with PERA [the Public Employees' Retirement Association]. So I'm walking for my retirement, I'm walking for the conditions of my school district, and I'm walking against corporate takeover of education."

Elizabeth Becker, a local student who would like to become a teacher, raised her concerns with teachers' salaries in Colorado. "I'll be a chemistry teacher in a few short years," she said. "From what I've seen, it's just ridiculous that my starting pay will be so little and the teachers who impacted me, their starting pay is so little."

KELLEEN ATCHISON is a kindergarten teacher who has been teaching for 11 years. "The funding for public education continues to decrease, while the cost of living keeps going up," she said. "That's why a lot of teachers have multiple jobs, or they're tutoring after school--you just can't pay your bills on a teachers' salary."

Atchison described her frustration with the myth that Colorado teachers are well paid:

In order to increase your income as a teacher, you have to go back for school. You have to go to graduate school, which is expensive. When they say that Colorado teachers make $51,000 on average, what they don't say is that that's based on a majority having a master's degree.

Teachers are expected to pay out of their own pockets for this degree, which adds up to between $30,000 and $120,000.

Kate Harrison, who teaches third grade, raised concerns about poor conditions in the schools and the safety of her students:

Our building was built in 1956 and has never been updated since then, because they can't pass a bond issue. In the bathrooms, sewage will come up through the pipes. We had a bathroom closed for a month because part of the ceiling fell in. We can't use the gym off and on, because the ceiling tiles fall down and hit children...We definitely had a mouse problem.

Harrison recalled an incident when the energy company Suncor released 75,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere: "They told everyone to keep the windows closed. But in my classroom, we can't close the windows--even when they're closed, there's a three-quarter-inch gap there. So we had class all day while we were being poisoned."

Workers from other unions turned out to show their solidarity for the teachers.

Juan Arellano, a special representative for the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, enthusiastically supported teachers' call for more funding:

This is something that's been a long time coming. Their cries for help have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the way that the people who make decisions, the legislators who we put into office--this is the way that they'll listen.

If they don't? What happens then is that we need to show up, with our wives and husbands and children, and we'll be here supporting them.

Simon Alice, a teacher and member of the Pikes Peak Education Association, welcomed the presence of other unions: "It was great to see other unions here, other brothers and sisters supporting us. I saw the carpenters union, and they're standing proudly with us. I hope that this is the beginning of more to come.

"At last our voice is rising to the point where people are beginning to listen which is vital," Alice said.

PETITIONERS WERE present at April 27 rally to gather signatures in support of Initiative 93, a ballot measure which would raise taxes on the top 8 percent of earners in the state to fund increases in education spending.

Colorado currently spends an estimated $2,000 per student less than the national average. Gov. John Hickenlooper has responded to attempts to increase education spending by pointing to the state's $700 million deficit. This ballot initiative seeks to set aside the funding in advance to assuage the objections of fiscal conservatives like the Democratic governor.

"Initiative 93 needs to get on the ballot, and we need to tax the rich," said Katie Low with the Littleton Education Association. "Ninety-two percent of people would see no income tax increase--only the top 8 percent, and that's more than reasonable."

While calls for voter registration and calls to support local politicians were fairly common at the rally, many teachers also expressed skepticism that legislators would enact change without pressure from below.

Carlos Valdez, a teacher from Aurora, said:

Right now, the immediate goals for many of the rank-and-file educators in Colorado revolve around increases in pay for public-school workers, increases in school funding, and a fix to the PERA pension fund. Union leadership is also primarily focused on small fixes such as the repeal of TABOR and the passage of Proposition 93. However, our goals will never be accomplished through the accepted lanes of the ruling capitalist class.

With four weeks left in the school year, Valdez is looking to the national wave of educator resistance for guidance: "Other states have also provided blueprints for our march toward a statewide strike in Colorado. However, we must keep everyone from Colorado Education Association leadership to our rank-and-file teachers energized and focused."

Carissa Freeman, who has been teaching for 17 years, was optimistic about the future, but didn't seem to have any illusions about the obstacles ahead:

I believe this will be a platform. I think today isn't the ending step--we have many more to come. We need support from parents and students. I want my children to understand what we're fighting for...I want everyone to know: Teachers are strong and teachers are passionate. We will fight.

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