Striking Colorado, USA teachers speak

Denver, USA teachers fighting to defend public education

By Andrea Peters in the USA:

13 February 2019

Teachers in Denver, Colorado are continuing their strike over low pay and underfunding of the school system. According to the union, 3,800 of the district’s 4,725 teachers are participating in the strike, which is the latest in a series of teacher walkouts extending across the United States since the spring of 2018.

Denver Public Schools (DPS), which serves 92,000 students and operates 207 schools, is attempting to keep the district running by putting administrators and substitute teachers in the classrooms. There is widespread support among students and parents for the DPS employees, who work in a state that ranks among the last in the nation in terms of teacher pay and live in a city where the median home price of $421,000 is double the national average.

Negotiations between DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) resumed on Tuesday. DPS officials say their proposal to raise starting salaries to $45,500 from their current level of $43,255 is contingent on slashing other district jobs. School Superintendent Susana Cordova says 150 jobs would have to be eliminated from the district’s central office and has claimed that support staff and janitors will not be affected. Not only are such promises dubious, but the cutting of central office staff has often been the prelude to the restructuring of school districts and the expansion of charter schools and other school privatization schemes. …

Teachers in Denver are fighting powerful corporate and political forces, which have long promoted merit pay and other attacks on teachers and public education. That is why they must not fight this struggle alone. The WSWS Teacher Newsletter urges teachers to elect rank-and-file strike committees at every school and in every neighborhood to mobilize the broadest support in the working class to back the teachers and to fight for the expansion of the strike throughout Colorado and beyond. …
Denver teachers choose their students, not corporate profits

In Colorado, the central role in axing social spending and making the state one of the nation’s most attractive for the wealthy has been played by the Democratic Party. With the exception of a two-term period from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, Democrats have controlled the governorship since 1974. Per pupil funding in Colorado for K-12 education is $2,000 below the national average and places the state among the bottom third of all states for school financing.

Small increases in budget allocations for public education in recent years have been far outstripped by increasing numbers of students, declining local funding and growing costs facing schools. The state does not even provide a free full-day kindergarten education. Families are charged tuition based on a sliding scale, with the maximum rate being upwards of $2,500 for the school year. Colorado’s current governor, Democrat Jared Polis, is a founder and advocate of charter schools. In May, the state’s previous Democratic governor signed into law a massive attack on the pensions of teachers and other public sector workers.

At the center of teachers’ demands is the overturning of Denver’s merit pay system, ProComp. The “incentive-based” compensation program was designed and implemented in the mid-2000s … . As a substitute for raising teachers’ base pay, the DPS and DCTA developed ProComp to award bonuses on the basis of student test scores, teacher evaluations, subject matter taught, the “high-priority” character of the student population, labor-market demands and a variety of other metrics.
A striking teacher

The “merit” standards are so complex and change so much that educators say they cannot predict their monthly, much less annual, income. The scheme is also used on school psychologists, counselors, librarians and other staff.

Abbie Ashby, a first-year math teacher, told the World Socialist Web Site: “I’m striking because the bonuses we receive disrupt our classrooms. I work in a ‘high priority’ [high poverty] classroom so despite the incentives, our middle school students only kept two of their teachers last year. My 8th grade students had so many math teachers last year.

“Since the incentives are unreliable, many teachers have taken significant pay cuts from year to year. Some teachers tell me they make less now than two years ago. I have no idea what my paycheck will be. As I told my students, from month to month I have to choose between buying snacks or school supplies for them in the classroom, or things for myself, like hygiene products. I’d like to be able to afford both things for my students and for myself.”

The merit-based pay system was billed as a means to boost teacher retention and student performance. It has achieved neither of these. The achievement gap between poor and better-off students is one of the largest in the country, exceeded only by Washington, DC, and Atlanta.

The overriding intent of the scheme is to scapegoat teachers for educational problems that are the inevitable product of poverty, social inequality and decades of defunding public education. One in five children in Denver live below the government’s official poverty line and a third come from families where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. These figures underestimate the real scope of social suffering. According to Shift Research Lab, however, a family of four in Denver must make 3.4 times the federal poverty line to actually be self-sufficient.

By linking their compensation to conditions in the schools, the ProComp system makes teachers pay for the devastating fact that large numbers of their students are living in households that cannot pay for the basic necessities of life.

The origins of Denver’s merit-based pay system can be traced back to the work of the National Commission on Teacher and America’s Future (NCTAF), headed by Democrat Jim Hunt (governor of North Carolina) and Linda Darling-Hammond. The latter served as an education advisor to Barack Obama and was considered for education secretary until Obama chose Arne Duncan, another proponent of corporate-backed “school reform”.

In 1996, the NCTAF published a report entitled, “What Matters Most: Teaching for America’s Future”, that advocated merit pay in the educational system. The agenda contained in this report was picked up by DPS, the DCTA and the Rose Community Foundation, which worked to institute a pilot ProComp program in Denver in 1999.

Mental health matters, credit: DPS

The “pay-for-performance” (PFP) model got a further boost in 2000 and 2003 from the right-wing scholar Edward Lazear, who would come to serve as the chief economic adviser to George W. Bush from 2006-2009. On the basis of data showing that a pay-per-item compensation model (in other words, piece rate) at Safelite Autoglass had significantly increased worker output and profits, the Stanford University professor argued that teachers should be subject to a similar “motivational” pay system.

The efforts in Denver caught the attention of other big donors, such Eli Broad, a multibillionaire promoter of privatizing public schools. In 2005, a major campaign effort initiated by the DCTA and DPS, backed by the Democratic Party and financed by so-called non-profits, steamrolled voters into supporting a tax measure to fund ProComp. The tax measure promised an additional $25 million for school financing as long as it was used to implement the merit-pay system.

“Entrepreneurial behavior within the unions” and “unprecedented labor-management collaboration” were key to securing the “groundbreaking” initiative, according to the major book on ProComp, Pay-for-Performance Teacher Compensation, published in 2007.

In fighting against merit pay, low wages and the underfunding of schools, Denver teachers are in conflict with the trade unions and the Democratic Party. The DCTA has already made clear that it is merely requesting changes to the ProComp system, not its elimination. Similarly, the head of the National Education Association (NEA), Lily Eskelsen Garcia, declared that the biggest issue was the lack of clarity in the ProComp system, not the existence of merit pay itself. “You are unique here in Denver because here you are saying, ‘Can I just know what I’m being paid?’” she told a crowd of striking teachers outside the Capitol building Monday.

Denver’s teachers’ strike is part of a broader struggle of educators throughout the United States and the world. Educators everywhere, and the students and communities they serve, are their allies … Only by taking the initiative in their own hands, through the formation of rank-and-file committees and linking up with educators and other workers across Colorado and beyond, can teachers mobilize the necessary support to wage this decisive battle.

By Rebecca Decario:

Striking Denver teachers speak out

13 February 2018

Teachers in Denver, Colorado are continuing their strike over merit pay and the chronic underfunding of the school system by city and state Democratic Party officials. There is broad support among students and parents for the strike, with many students walking out of school to join the picket lines and protests by their teachers.

As the hundreds of teachers marched the mile to Civic Center Park, near the State Capitol Building, cars honked, and people came out of the neighborhoods and stores to support them. Teachers and students spoke to the World Socialist Web Site about the “pay-for-performance” ProComp scheme that ties teachers’ compensation to standardized test scores and other measurements largely determined by poverty, school defunding and other social ills, which teachers have no control over. In addition to scapegoating teachers for these conditions, the arbitrary character of the merit pay system has left teachers unsure of their actual income from month-to-month.

“I’ve been working for DPS (Denver Public Schools) for 12 years and I’ve been a teacher for 21 years, but I honestly have no idea how much money I make,” Ryan Short, a teacher at East High School, told the WSWS Teacher Newsletter. “It varies every year and, yes, every month. It’s ProComp and the different bonuses that come and go. One year a bonus might be worth something, the next year it is worth nothing.

“We want salaries to be equitable for all teachers. We are asking for a transparent salary scale, higher base pay and incentive bonuses. We want it to be fair and predictable for all teachers. We all work hard. As a special education teacher, there’s no reason I should be paid an extra $2,500 a year above the science teacher next to me. The money is not why I do what I do. We should raise the wages for everybody and make it fair for everybody, then turnover will be less, and student success will increase.

“I am married to a professional, we do OK, but I’m out here fighting for all the people I work with. Without a doubt, I’ve had friends come and go out of the profession just because they can’t afford it.

“There’s a movement across the country to honor teachers and pay them a professional wage. If you just pay people a fair base salary where they don’t have to worry about money, it will increase productivity and creativity.”

Asked what the low pay for teachers means for students’ educations, Ryan said: “When a teacher rushes out of the building at 3:15 to get to their second job and works to 9:30 or 10 at night, yes, students suffer. When teachers are working 18-hour days, it definitely affects students.”

Abbie Ashby, a first-year math teacher, said, “I’m striking because the bonuses we receive disrupt our classrooms. I work in a ‘high priority’ [high poverty] classroom so despite the incentives, our middle school students only kept two of their teachers last year. My eighth grade students had so many math teachers last year.

“Since the incentives are unreliable, many teachers have taken significant pay cuts from year to year. Some teachers tell me they make less now than two years ago.

“I have no idea what my paycheck will be. This is my first year and every time I get it, I am completely confused. I don’t know if I’m getting all the right money for incentives.

“I live in 800-square feet with three adults, that’s what we can afford. I make about $42,000 a year. I rent because I could never afford a house or be approved for a loan. If I were to apply for a mortgage, incentives would not be considered to qualify for a mortgage.

“We’re not eating great, we’re eating the same couple of things every day. It’s okay, my partner is on food stamps, so that helps. As I told my students, from month to month I have to choose between buying snacks or school supplies for them in the classroom, or things for myself, like hygiene products. I’d like to be able to afford both things for my students and for myself.”

Another educator Jennifer, said: “Every year is different, as to what my bonus is going to be, or even when we’re going to be paid for the bonuses. One year the bonus was only paid in December. I can afford to live in Denver only because my parents help me.”

Asked about the role of the Democrats in supporting accountability schemes like ProComp, Jennifer said: “I think the Democratic Party is just as much a party of the establishment as any other. I was a Democrat for a month to caucus for Bernie. I left when they screwed him over. I’m independent now, probably for life. If the Democrats don’t become more progressive, they’re going to die, just like the Republicans are.”

Another teacher, Joe Walden, told the WSWS: “We have been working on this for years in terms of ProComp. One of our messages is that incentives don’t work. We need a good starting salary and a reasonable plan to build that salary over the course of our careers. A sticking point is the role of professional development; the administration makes it an impossible hoop to jump through.

“We have a general idea of how much money we make each month, but we don’t know what is going to be incentivized each year. This year we got one for growth in test scores; we received $1,000. Last year, it was close to $2,400. It’s announced about three weeks before you get it.

“We all love our children, we love our students. Paying us more bonuses doesn’t make us work harder. We believe in the future and want to have an impact on that future.”

Rebekah and Cathryn marching to support their teachers

Two East High School students, Rebekah Wilson and Cathryn Seaman also spoke with the WSWS. Rebekah said: “I’m out here because the teachers in DPS have done so much for me. They helped me bring my GPA up from 1.7 to 5.9. That wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing teachers in my life.

“I have one teacher with four to five kids at home, and yet he’s always at the school. They deserve more pay. They have families themselves and shouldn’t be struggling to have food on the table. One of my teachers’ husband had no pay because of the government shutdown too.”

Cathryn Seaman added, “My teachers work really hard. They are always there to support us. They do a lot of work outside the classroom and shouldn’t have to work second jobs. They work every day to make sure we are learning, are safe and comfortable in school. They deserve to get decent wages.”

TEACHERS IN WEST VIRGINIA TO STRIKE West Virginia public school teachers plan to go on strike again Tuesday, nearly a year to the day after they began a historic walkout that inspired teacher strikes in other states. [HuffPost]

A year since statewide strike. West Virginia teachers walk out to oppose charter schools: here.

West Virginia educators remain defiant in second day of statewide strike: here.

West Virginia teachers denounce attack on public education: here.

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