Denver Strike: Teachers Protest Low Pay and “Corporate Reform” Innovations that Didn’t Work

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association went on strike yesterday against the Denver Public Schools over low pay and what has become a failed experiment in merit pay bonuses.  Schoolteachers want the district to scrap its ProComp incentive pay system, which was put in place in 2006 when teachers agreed to the plan—a fixture of then-Superintendent Michael Bennet’s corporate school reformer agenda.  Bennet now a U.S. Senator, served as Denver’s school-reformer superintendent from 2005 until 2009. He was the mayor’s chief of staff and formerly an investment banker who lacked any experience in education.

Denver’s teachers’ strike is the latest in a yearlong wave of walkouts by teachers—a state-by-state cry for help from a profession of hard-working, dedicated public servants disgusted with despicable working conditions, lack of desperately needed services for their students, and insultingly low pay. This time, however, an added issue is a twelve-year experiment with corporate reformer innovation in the form of a bonus pay system supposedly to incentivize teachers to work harder and smarter. Today teachers claim the innovation didn’t work, because too much money went into bonuses at the expense of base pay.

For the NY Times, Julie Turkewitz and Dana Goldstein explain why Denver’s teachers are striking: “Pay-for-performance models like Denver’s offer teachers bonuses for raising student achievement and for taking on tougher assignments, such as in schools with many students from low-income families.”  Denver teachers, write Turkewitz and Goldstein, “say this model-once hailed as a way to motivate teachers—has delivered erratic bonuses while their base salaries stagnate amid rising living costs… The foundational principle of Pro-Comp—evaluating teachers according to how well their students perform—was later enshrined in Colorado law and then in Race to the Top…. But such evaluation models typically required more testing of students in order to gather evidence of teacher impact…. Since 2016, federal and state laws have shifted districts away from using student performance to judge teachers. In many ways, ProComp is now seen as a relic of an earlier era of school reform.”

The Denver Post‘s Elizabeth Hernandez reports that the school district’s negotiators agreed to save money by phasing out the jobs of central office administrators, but the school district’s proposal invests the money into increases in the Pro-Comp incentive system instead of raising base pay.  The teachers union rejected the proposal.

Denver’s teachers have pointed out that the ProComp bonus incentives are unstable, shifting each year according, for example, to the percentage of students who qualify for free-and-reduced price lunch in any school—a figure which shifts as families relocate.  Turkewitz and Goldstein explain: “Denver teachers and their union leaders argue that it is more important to raise teachers’ base pay than to offer them modest and unpredictable bonuses. In a city surging with new money from the technology, aerospace and marijuana industries, teachers say they are struggling to pay off student loans and cannot afford rent, much less buy a home… The average Denver teacher earns $63,400 per year, including any ProComp bonuses.  The union wants more money to go to base salaries, in part by reducing a proposed $4,500 bonus for teachers in high-poverty schools, and eliminating a proposed $3,000 incentive for teachers in the district’s 30 highest-priority schools.”

Chalkbeat reprinted a letter from several Denver teachers explaining why, even though they serve in “hard to serve” schools, they want to reject ProComp: ” It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working.  We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment.  Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers…  The current bonuses let the district off the hook… We know that increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools.  Increasing incentive pay to work at ‘hard to serve’ schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs.  It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.”

There are also deeper structural problems.  Denver’s economy is surging and driving up the cost of living, but its tax laws have kept overall school funding low. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that Colorado remains the only state with a TABOR—a Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights, “a constitutional measure that limits the annual growth in state (and sometimes local) revenues or spending to the sum of the annual inflation rate and the annual percentage change in the state’s population. (For example, if the general inflation rate is 2 percent and the state’s population grows by 1 percent, state revenue available for expenditures can increase by 3 percent. The balance must be refunded to taxpayers.) Overriding these limits requires voters’ approval or some other high bar, such as a supermajority vote of the legislature.” “In 2005, Colorado voters approved a measure to suspend TABOR’s formula for five years to allow the state to rebuild its public services. Unfortunately, the suspension did not last long enough for the state to recover fully from the period that TABOR was in effect, and the Great Recession further undermined that effort. TABOR continues to cause ongoing fiscal headaches for Colorado even as the economy improves.”

In its newest 2017 study of school funding across the states, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported Colorado’s total state and local funding for K-12 public education to be 4 percent below what was being invested in education in 2008 before the Great Recession (in inflation-adjusted terms).

More to the point in terms of teachers’ salaries, the Economic Policy Institute’s Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel point out that Colorado’s teacher pay penalty is fourth worst in the country. Colorado teachers’ salaries are 35.1 percent lower than the salaries of other college graduates. The only states with a bigger gap between teachers’ pay and and the pay for other comparably educated professionals are Arizona, North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Turkewitz and Goldstein blame Colorado’s failure adequately to fund its schools for much of the problem teachers are protesting in Denver: “Underlying the battle in Denver is the fact that school funding in Colorado was about $2,000 below the national average per-student in 2016.  The state requires all tax increases to be approved directly by referendum, and during the midterm elections this past November, voters rejected an initiative to raise money for schools by increasing corporate taxes and personal income taxes on those earning over $150,000.”