Why Teachers are Walking Out

In a recently published article in Education Week, Marc Tucker (CEO of the National Center on Education & the Economy) wrote, “Little wonder the teachers are striking. The only question is why it took them so long.”

Here in Jeffco, and across Colorado (and the nation), educators and other staff members working in schools are calling for walk-outs and even outright labor strikes in protest of years of low education funding and proposed reforms to public employee pension systems.

During the years of the Great Recession, education budgets were slashed in Colorado as the economy shrunk – and so did tax collections. The pain of these cuts was clearly felt as districts struggled to serve communities and families while having to reduce the size of their organizations by almost 20% during this period.

Educator walk outs and strikes were not prevalent during this period. I believe most people working in our schools “got it” – that there was less money to go around due to the recession and we would need to make sacrifices like everyone else. So, cuts were made that led to larger class sizes, fewer supports, pay freezes or reductions, and fewer employee benefits.

But once the economy started heating back up, turning into one of the longest periods of sustained economic growth in U.S. and Colorado history, funds have been slow to come back to our schools.

In the Centennial state, this is due in large part to a “one-way-ratchet” provision in the TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) amendment to the state Constitution. This provision requires the economy to shrink during times of economic downturn, but then slowly ratchet back up in times of economic prosperity.

In short, educators have seen the economy in Colorado go red hot, along with things like rising housing costs, but their paychecks have not returned to pre-recession levels compared to inflation.

The state manages its budget shortfall through a fiscal tool called the “negative factor.” Basically, it means that when school budgets are created, pre-recession funding numbers plus inflation are put in at the top of the ledger, and then sufficient funds are sucked back out further down the page to help balance the state budget.

Last year, members of the legislature felt that the term “negative factor” was, well … too negative. So they officially changed the name to the “budget stabilization” factor … or B.S. factor. You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

The B.S. factor stands as a measure of where Colorado’s schools are funded today compared to pre-recession levels. The cumulative impact of that ongoing cut since 2009 is $6.7 billion. Jeffco’s portion of this has been a cumulative $634 million, or about $76 million annually.

Sometimes these numbers are so big they are hard to put into context, so let me make an attempt.

The biggest cost factors in school budgets are how many people you have and how much you pay them. $76 million is enough for Jeffco to put 1,000 more teachers into our schools. Put another way, it is enough to give all of our current staff members a 13.5% pay raise. For our average teacher, that would be about a $7,100 annual raise – or about $600 a month more.

For a Jeffco teacher, $600 more a month is significant. It means the difference on being able to own a home, or buy a car, or save for your kid’s college.

The other reason educators are walking out relates to what they perceive as a threat to their pension system. Colorado PERA’s recent shortfalls are well-known and I believe most Colorado educators, retirees, and employers expected some degree of financial pain to come if we wanted PERA to be there for us when we retired and grew older.

What changed things for educators was when the conversation went from “how do we stabilize” PERA to “how do we dismantle” it. Educators work for years at modest compensation levels with the promise of having a stable and sufficient retirement there for the golden years. The prospect of losing that pension breaks the social contract under which our educators and staff entered the profession.

Credit is due to our current legislators in taking on these issues and providing some relief, at least in the preliminary deal-making happening at the capitol. Talk is that the legislature plans to reduce the B.S. factor by $150 million dollars next year. And, they plan on having the state cover the PERA budget shortfall which (over time) should stabilize that system.

I know some legislators are frustrated with the demands and advocacy from our educators about funding this year, when they feel they are doing what they can.

I think what they need to know is that it isn’t just about this year. It’s about nearly a decade of frustration from low pay, heavy workloads, doing less with less, making wicked trade-offs when it comes to services for our students, and being told help is not on the way or that there are other priorities.

In sum, our educators are saying they’ve had it – and something has got to change.

5 thoughts on “Why Teachers are Walking Out

  1. Hello Jason,

    Thank you for the informative post. I’m in agreement with our educators on the financial aspects behind teacher walkouts across our state. I’ll share some additional financial information in my initial response. Personally, I do believe there is more behind the teacher walkouts than salary. I’ll address education “reform” in my second response.

    A recent study from the Education Law Center, a group that advocates for more school funding, ranked Colorado DEAD LAST in the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. Source: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1BGXV3mV7aO5hr3N4MX_nBMJGKZswR-bS/view The typical 25-year-old teacher at the beginning of her career in Colorado makes just 69 percent of what her peers with similar education levels who work similar hours earn. It’s hard to compete as a school district and as a state when there are opportunities to better provide for your family elsewhere.

    The National Education Association’s annual ranking of the states put Colorado in 46th place for teacher pay in 2016, with an average annual salary of $46,155. In contrast, teachers in Wyoming, which ranks 16th for teacher pay, earned an average annual salary of $58,140, a hair below the national average and roughly equivalent to the salaries earned by other college-educated professionals there. Source: http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/2017_Rankings_and_Estimates_Report-FINAL-SECURED.pdf We can do better.

    Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of states for school funding. The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, Education Week; Quality Counts, and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show Colorado ranks 42nd in how much it spends per student, roughly $2,500 less than the national average.

    Which means despite being the nation’s 12th richest state with a booming economy, our public schools land at the bottom of the list for both per pupil spending and teacher pay. It’s unacceptable. This must change.

    Let’s stop thinking of schools as something we pay for and start thinking of schools as something we invest in.

    To our educators, you are appreciated. You invest your heart, soul, sweat, and tears in our children every day. It’s time our state invests in you. YOU DESERVE IT!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Personally, I believe the brand of Education “reform” that’s dominated Colorado since the passing of SB191 in 2010 is a factor in the school walkouts and the teacher shortage across our state. I would be very curious to hear from educators on how “reform” has or hasn’t impacted them.

    Since 2010, there’s been a 24 percent drop in graduates from the traditional teacher prep programs at Colorado’s colleges and universities. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment to those programs. Senate Bill 191 passed in 2010. As some have pointed out to me on Twitter correlation does not prove causation. Clearly the above mentioned factors around teacher pay also have played in a role in graduation and enrollment in teacher preparation programs. We can talk all day about salary as means to why people aren’t entering the profession. We need to be asking ourselves about the conditions, climate, and culture within our schools and if current policy is impacting these statistics.

    We simply cannot ignore the culture and climate within some schools and school districts created by SB 191. I’ve heard stories of schools where teachers receive 20-30 scored teacher evaluations within the context of the evaluation timeframe of their district. That’s roughly 11% of their school year where they receive a formal evaluation. Are we growing teacher practice or are we simply putting numbers into an evaluation system because that’s the directive? In another district, I’ve heard that principals are evaluated in part on the number of teacher evaluations they conduct. Again, aren’t we in the business of learning and capacity building?

    I’ve heard and seen firsthand teachers being taught hand signals like Brian Butterfield coaching 3rd Base for the Cubs that they must use during instruction to “engage” students. Not to mention, we have schools here in Colorado with populations predominately made up of students of color where brown and black boys and girls are dressed in uniforms and marched in lines down hallways checked with a step count. Where I come from that’s not called school, it’s called prison. A lot of these practices are being done in the name of “reform”. Teachers don’t want to be Brian Butterfield and students don’t want to be walked down hallways like inmates. Teachers want to teach. Students want to learn. Somewhere along the way people far removed from our classrooms and schools began to decide what’s best for kids.

    Ultimately, in my opinion, that’s what led to last Saturday’s rebuke of the “Democrats For Education Reform” at the Democratic State Assembly. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, and educators are tired of this brand of “reform” in Colorado. Nobody will argue that we need to do better in our schools. Nobody will argue that we must prepare all students for not just their future, but for anything. For me, there’s a different way to get there. There is a big difference between forcing teachers and students to conform and reform and working collaboratively to transform the learning experience. I’ve found form experience that capacity building, engagement, and trust building are better drivers for accountability and whole system reform than the old Hacksaw Jim Duggan 2 x 4 to the head that is accountability driven “reform.”

    Essentially, SB 191 an accountability based driver that uses test results and teacher appraisal to reward or punish teachers and schools. Education expert Michael Fullen writes about accountability in his book “The Principal” as being a “wrong driver” i.e. “a deliberate policy force
    that has little chance of achieving the desired result in terms of school reform.” Fullen points out that leading with accountability is not the best way to get accountability, let alone whole system reform. There is no system in the world has ever achieved whole system reform by leading with accountability. Yet, that’s the primary driver of Education policy on the state and national level. It’s due time we have conversations at the state and national level about the impacts of current education policy.

    An exceptional education for all children starts with great teachers and great leaders. By leading schools in a way that places student and adult learning at the center and providing cohesion in the supports at the peripheral, our schools and district can realize our shared vision that every child succeeds. Capacity building, collaborative work, supporting improved pedagogy, and having systemness (diagnosis, focus and a coherent plan of action) are transformational and help to create environments where people thrive as opposed to survive.

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