Colorado Teacher Protests: Jail Threats, Strike Prospects, Possible Solutions

One of the protesters at a teacher demonstration at the Colorado State Capitol on April 26.
Photo by Justin Karr
One of the protesters at a teacher demonstration at the Colorado State Capitol on April 26.
Day two of teacher protests at the Colorado State Capitol, following a boisterous turnout in the same location yesterday, is expected to attract educators from across the metro area and the state. The atmosphere is tense, given the introduction of a bill that threatens to jail teachers who strike and a call for doctors willing to write notes for protesting instructors who may otherwise have their pay docked for attending rallies even if schools are closed in their district. But Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, prefers to keep the focus on the reasons teachers are demonstrating.

"We have chronically underfunded our system," Baca-Oehlert says. "We need to do better by our students, and by our community."

The week before what Baca-Oehlert refers to as the current "days of action," Senator Bob Gardner and Representative Paul Lundeen, a pair of Republican legislators from El Paso County, introduced Senate Bill 18-264, which "prohibits public school teachers and teacher organizations from directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating in a strike against any public school employer."

The measure requires public school employers to seek an injunction from district court to end any strikes, and failure to abide by such an edict would be punishable by "fines or up to six months in county jail, or both."

click to enlarge Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association. - YOUTUBE
Amie Baca-Oehlert, vice president of the Colorado Education Association.
First things first: "We do not have plans for a statewide strike at this point," Baca-Oehlert stresses. However, she adds that "at a time when we have a massive educator shortage here in Colorado, we should have legislators supporting and championing public school educators. When you introduce a bill like that, it can lead one to surmise how certain legislators feel about those educators."

Observers on both sides of the political divide give the Gardner-Lundeen measure no chance to pass and see it as more of an attention-getting device than a serious proposal. Nonetheless, Baca-Oehlert makes it clear that the CEA opposes it even as she decries many of the school funding mechanisms already in place.

Among those that stoke her frustration is one popularly known as the "negative factor," which is used in conjunction with Colorado's School Finance Act. Under its provisions, according to the Great Education Colorado website, "the legislature...decides how much it wants to spend on school finance, and then adjusts the negative factor to meet that funding target."

"The negative factor, which is also referred to as the budget stabilization factor, has been in place since 2009, and it's led to a decade of underfunding schools," Baca-Oehlert maintains. "This year, the negative factor has grown to $822 million, but over the last ten years, it adds up to $6.6 billion. That means some students have spent their entire K-12 education experience at underfunded schools."

She adds that "committed educators have done more with less for a long time. Some of them are working two and three jobs to feed their families — even ones with master's degrees. That's why so many of them are choosing to take their personal leave time to come down to the Capitol and talk to elected officials about what's happening. They're saying, 'Enough is enough. Our students deserve better.'"

click to enlarge A panorama of the teacher protest at the Colorado State Capitol on April 26. - PHOTO BY JUSTIN KARR
A panorama of the teacher protest at the Colorado State Capitol on April 26.
Photo by Justin Karr
As far as potential solutions to the funding problems, Baca-Oehlert says, "One of the things we're asking is that the legislature starts to prioritize classrooms over corporations and freeze corporate tax breaks of all kinds until full funding is restored. Right now, we're $2,700 below the national average for per-pupil funding at a time when we have corporations that are receiving large tax breaks."

At the same time, the CEA is backing Great Schools, Thriving Communities, also known as Initiative 93, a proposed ballot measure that "would raise $1.6 billion annually to support public education," Baca-Oehlert notes. "It's currently in the stage of gathering signatures, and we're hoping the public will understand the need to increase funding for public schools in Colorado and sign a petition to get this initiative on the ballot" in November 2018.

In the meantime, Baca-Oehlert cheers the motivations behind the teacher protests.

"It certainly inspires hope in us to see communities all across Colorado coming together to participate in this day," she points out. "It says we have people all across the state who are willing to listen to and support education in our local communities. And it also gives us hope that we, as citizens of Colorado, can get an initiative on the ballot and then pass that ballot initiative to support our students and our schools."