Teaching Profession

3 Things to Know About the Denver Teacher Strike

By Madeline Will — February 10, 2019 3 min read
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About 5,000 Denver teachers will take to the picket lines on Monday in a fight over the district’s performance-pay model.

Bargaining teams from the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and the school district met on Saturday for a last-ditch negotiation session, but didn’t come to an agreement. Union officials said the district’s latest offer, which cut about 150 central office positions in order to free up more money for teacher pay and raised the financial incentive for working in a high-poverty school, “made the situation worse and the strike inevitable.” The union has asked for bigger base salaries and fewer incentives.

See also: Denver Teachers to Strike Over Merit-Pay System

“We will strike Monday for our students and for our profession, and perhaps then DPS will get the message and return to the bargaining table with a serious proposal aimed at solving the teacher turnover crisis in Denver,” said Henry Roman, the teachers’ union president.

The last teacher strike in Denver, which is the largest school district in the state, was in 1994. Here’s what you should know about this year’s protest:

1. The strike is over a performance-pay system that’s been in place for 14 years. The pay model in Denver, known as ProComp, was once heralded as a revolutionary way to pay teachers as professionals. The system rewards teachers not for their number of years in the classroom, but for their work raising student achievement and for teaching where they are needed most. It was a collaborative effort between the district, the union, and taxpayers, who passed an annual property tax increase to fund the program in 2005.

Now, teachers say the pay structure is confusing. There are about 10 different incentives and bonuses that reward teachers for their students’ growth and for working in hard-to-staff positions and schools. Both the district and the union agree that ProComp needs to be streamlined, but they disagree on the details. The union wants across-the-board pay raises and smaller, fewer incentives, while the district says that the key to reducing student achievement gaps is to give bigger financial incentives to teachers working in the city’s poorest schools.

The average teacher salary in Denver, which includes incentives, is $62,095. That’s well above the national average teacher salary, which is $55,100, according to federal data. However, housing prices in Denver have skyrocketed in recent years.

2. Schools will remain open during the strike. The district has pledged to keep educating students during the strike. According to the Denver Post, the district has hired 300 new substitute teachers and has an “active roster” of 1,200 substitutes.

The Los Angeles school district also kept schools open during the six-day teacher strike last month, relying on substitutes and administrators to keep classes running. Many principals complained that they were overworked and understaffed during the strike, forced to simultaneously manage school operations and classroom instruction. Ultimately, many parents kept their children home from school. (That is likely to be the case in Denver, too: The Denver Post reported that Superintendent Susana Cordova said she’s not sure if she’ll send her own daughter to school on the first day of the strike.)

See also: Susana Cordova: A ‘Perpetual Fighter’ Looking Out for All Kids

3. This strike could be a sign that teacher activism is moving to more big cities and blue states. The wave of teacher activism that started last year primarily took place in red states, and mostly occurred as statewide protests. Now, Denver will be the second big school district in a liberal city to see a teacher strike. Teachers in Los Angeles went on strike last month and came away with a pay raise, smaller class sizes, and more support staff. Also last month, teachers from across Virginia rallied at the state Capitol last month to call for higher pay.

One of the main themes of these protests has been growing anger from teachers toward their state legislatures for not putting more money in schools. Indeed, Cordova has pointed to a lack of state investment in education as a reason why the district can’t afford to meet all of the union’s demands. According to an Education Week Research Center analysis that’s adjusted for regional cost differences, Colorado spends about $9,700 per student—below the national average of $12,500.

Image: A teacher holds a placard during a rally outside the state Capitol in Denver on Jan. 30. Public school teachers across the city plan to go on strike Feb. 11. —David Zalubowski/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.