Teachers in the Park County RE-2 School District picketed Monday and reported no progress by the end of the business day. Officials closed the district’s three schools in Fairplay on Monday, and in the evening said in a press release that they would not have classes or athletic activities Tuesday.
The decision by Park County educators to leave their classrooms — which serve about 600 students in the South Park area southwest of Denver — follows strikes in Pueblo in May 2018 and Denver in February.
The three strikes all involved slightly different local conditions, but teachers in each district have been squeezed by the rising cost of living and largely flat salaries, said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association. Some teachers work second or third jobs, and some have incomes low enough for their children to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, she said.
Teachers also are fed up with large classes and turnover among their colleagues, which hurt students’ ability to learn, Baca-Oehlert said.
“We certainly are seeing the impacts of a decade of underfunding,” she said.
It used to be that strikes were rare in Colorado, said Timothy Brown, who teaches music at Denver Public Schools’ Lincoln Elementary and Denison Montessori School. Teachers in Denver went on strike in 1969 and 1994, and the Montezuma-Cortez School District dealt with a strike in 1981.
Brown worked in DPS during the 1994 and 2019 strikes, and said there were some similarities. In the ’90s, teachers were seeking more control over working conditions, like limits on class sizes and a lunch break where they wouldn’t have to supervise students. Now teachers feel like their voices are being disregarded again as districts and the state place mandates on them with standardized testing and rating systems, he said.
“People are very irritated with working very hard and receiving low rankings in the school performance framework,” he said.
The feeling of disrespect is increased because wages haven’t kept pace with the cost of living, and teachers are having to contribute more toward their health insurance and pension programs, Brown said.
Cheri Wrench, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said districts are struggling to increase pay for their teachers because of Colorado’s funding system, which limits how much tax revenue government can keep. Without changes at the state level, many districts won’t be able to meet their teachers’ demands, even if the economy remains strong, she said.
“Their hands are tied, oftentimes,” she said.
It’s not only a Colorado problem, Wrench said. Teachers in Los Angeles went on strike in January, Chicago teachers are threatening action and educators in Oklahoma and West Virginia walked out last year. In a September poll from Phi Delta Kappan magazine, 60% of teachers surveyed nationwide said they thought their pay was unfair, and half said they’d considered leaving their profession.
While local views vary, national data suggests there’s relatively little risk of backlash against striking teachers. The September poll found anywhere from 70% to 84% of parents said they would support their teachers if they went on strike, with the variation based on what the teachers demanded in the poll question.Kathy Schultz, dean of the School of Education at University of Colorado Boulder, said trust in institutions, including schools, has gone down, so teachers and communities are less likely to believe that school boards and administrators are acting in good faith. While salaries are often the catalyst for a strike, deeper issues can come to the surface, like feelings that administrators don’t listen to teachers and that schools aren’t giving kids what they need, she said.
People often expect school communities to heal quickly after a strike, but that doesn’t always happen, as evidenced by West Virginia, where teachers walked out in 2018 and again earlier this year, Schultz said. If districts want to move past a strike, they need to take a deep look at what caused it, and come up with a meaningful way to share decision making, she said.
“We tend to think of teachers strikes as just about salaries and they are,” she said. “But often there are larger issues.”