An estimated 10,000 protesters in red T-shirts chanting "Red for Ed" and holding picket signs marched from Civic Center Park to the Capitol on Friday, joining thousands of teachers around the country in what has been called the largest educator protest in Colorado history.
The massive crowd of public school employees — from teachers and administrators to school district carpenters and food service workers — took to the Capitol for a singular purpose: to demand that legislators prioritize public education. To them, that means a fully funded education budget, which the state hasn't done for nearly a decade.
The two-day protest at the Capitol comes on the heels of a national uprising of public school educators to pressure their state representatives to put more money into their crumbling public education systems. It started with West Virginia when all 55 of its school districts shut down and went on strike for nine days, which ended in that state's governor signing a bill for a 5 percent pay increase for all state employees, including teachers. Soon after, teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky joined in to lobby their statehouses for higher wages, more school funding and pension reform. And most recently, thousands of Arizona teachers have been picketing since Thursday.
So, what happens now?
Well, one bill at the state legislature that was supposed to restructure the public school funding formula died early on in the session — even after it received near unanimous approval from Colorado superintendents. And with so many bills trying to make it to the finish line before the end of session on May 9, protesters can't expect to get a whole lot more out of their legislators. State pension reform is on the line — certainly, one point of contention for protesters — and that might come to fruition. But pensions don't really answer the real and significant here-and-now issues around public school funding.
The uninitiated in the Colorado education debate may well ask: What issues?
Every year since the Great Recession, state legislators have cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the state K-12 education budget. That annual haircut, known as the budget stabilization factor, has cost Colorado public schools $6.67 billion. The Colorado Education Association hopes to secure a commitment from legislators to stop the annual cuts and end the budget stabilization factor, also known as the negative factor, in the next four years.
"This means we have a teacher shortage in the state," says Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the largest teacher's union in the state. The CEA organized last week's protests at the Capitol. "It means we can't find enough bus drivers. It means teachers are buying their own dry erase markers and their own reams of paper. We want to build public awareness, but we want the state legislature to hear that they're not doing enough. We don't want to hear the platitudes anymore. We want to hear a commitment from them that they're going to do something to address the chronic underfunding of our public schools."
School districts have been struggling to keep pace with the rising cost of living; 95 percent of rural districts can't afford to pay their teachers a living wage, according to the Colorado Department of Education's latest report on the state's teacher shortage. Even in the Denver metro, starting teacher salaries can be as low as $34,000. The base salary for novice teachers at Denver Public Schools is just under $42,000. On top of the low salaries, about 3,000 teacher positions remain vacant in the state because districts can't attract or retain teachers, causing a crisis-level shortage of educators.
Colorado consistently ranks near the bottom for per-pupil spending, which came in at $9,245 for the 2015 fiscal year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That's more than $2,100 below the U.S. average and places Colorado in the bottom ten states for spending. And according to a 2016 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, Colorado spent $703 less per pupil during the 2012-2013 school year than it did a decade earlier, placing the state near last place for per-pupil spending changes. The state is also below average for teacher salaries, ranking number 31 in the nation for average teacher pay.
The teacher shortage, lack of school funding and inability to pay teachers a fair wage has gotten so bad that some districts are choosing to go to a four-day school week. School District 27J in Commerce City will be the first urban district in the state to institute a four-day week when it transitions for the 2018-2019 school year.
But education activists are planning to turn the tides for Colorado public schools.
A ballot petition is circulating that could raise significant dollars for public education. All that money would fund full-day kindergarten, pay down the budget stabilization factor and pour even more money into public education.
Initiative 93 would raise the state income tax on the top 8 percent of earners; Coloradans making under $150,000 won't be affected by the change. Depending on what income bracket the earners fall in, they could see a tax rate increase of 0.37 percent to 3.62 percent, and certain domestic and foreign corporations would also see a tax increase. Altogether, those tax dollars would raise $1.6 billion annually.
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In the (not-so-distant) past, a common refrain from legislators over the public school funding is "our hands are tied" or "it's TABOR's fault, not ours," referencing the state's restrictive tax law, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. Because of the state's wonky interplay between education funding and two toxic tax laws, schools are being strangled to death, and lawmakers have thrown up their hands in exasperation.
The petition will do exactly what legislators have been unable to accomplish — fully fund education.
"How about each [legislator] comes out and endorses Initiative 93 to get a school funding measure on the ballot in November. That's what they can do. That's a real tangible thing," Dallman says. "You can't have it both ways. You can't say your hands are tied, and then not take advantage of an opportunity to solve the problem."
Petitions for Initiative 93 were circulating at Friday's protest. If it gathers 98,462 signatures by August, the initiative will make it onto the November ballot.