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Denver Teachers Strike Back

A public education strike wave continues to sweep the country. Today, it’s the turn of Denver teachers to fight back against the privatizers.

Denver Public Schools teachers and members of the community picket outside South High School on February 11, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images

If there were any lingering doubts over whether the United States is in the midst of a teachers’ strike wave, developments over the past few days should put these to rest. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the official strike data for 2018 and the verdict is clear: “The number of workers involved [in work stoppages] was the highest since 1986.” Of these strikers, the overwhelming majority were educators.

No less significantly, unionized teachers in Denver this weekend decided to move ahead with their work stoppage, which begins on Monday. Denver’s strike underscores that the recent victorious blue-state teachers’ revolt in Los Angeles was not an anomaly. Like in LA, this is fundamentally a strike against the austerity and “education reform” agenda imposed by Democratic Party politicians for well over a decade. Under the inspiration of the nationwide teachers’ upsurge, and the initiatives of a new rank-and-file caucus, Denver’s educators have successfully pushed their union to fight for the schools that students — and teachers — deserve.

Corporate Education Reform

The roots of Denver’s strike can be traced back to decades of stagnating wages and pro-corporate “education reform.” But, above all, it’s been the policies imposed since the Great Recession that have pushed Denver’s teachers to the brink.

On the most immediate level, this is a conflict over wages. Over the past ten years, teacher pay in Colorado has declined by 7.7 percent. Justin Kirkland, a Denver public school teacher and Democratic Socialists of America member, explains that “since the recession, we’ve gone over ten years with almost no real pay raise. Housing costs here are really high and we’re not making a living wage — so it’s no big surprise why there’s such a teachers’ shortage.”

In response to the educators’ salary demands, district leaders are pleading poverty. Yet part of the reason for this budget crunch is that years of privatizing policies have massively expanded the number of school administrators in Denver. Indeed, as Chalkbeat reports, “Denver has 1 administrator for every 7.5 instructional staff — far above [the] state average.”

Though salary questions are at the center of the current round of bargaining, Denver’s strike is fundamentally an expression of teachers’ rejection of the corporate reform agenda. After years of being scapegoated by district leaders and media pundits, education workers see the current strike as a means to assert their worth and dignity — and to push back against the “portfolio” model that has degraded the city’s public schools.

Beginning in 2009, billionaire-funded organizations like Democrats for Education Reform have spent huge amounts — well over $250,000 per race — to capture the local school board. This investment has paid off well: a majority of Denver public schools are now either privately run charters or “innovation schools,” which are largely exempt from existing regulations and public oversight.

In line with the “portfolio” model, Denver schools have been forced to compete with each other. Despite the lack of evidence that standardized testing accurately measures student achievement, test scores have become a key metric for whether a school is allowed to continue to exist or not. Over forty-five schools have been closed in recent years.

This destabilizing turn towards privatization has succeeded in undercutting teacher autonomy and working conditions, since charters and innovation schools are mostly union-free. “We’re now subjected to so many meaningless ‘accountability’ measures that we’re not given enough time to spend actually teaching our students,” explains Kirkland. “There’s so much testing and mandates that the joy of teaching, and learning, has been increasingly taken out of the classroom.”

This radical transformation of Denver schools has brought about many changes — but improving student achievement has not been one of them, even if one accepts the questionable criteria of test scores. By almost any metric, “education reform” in Denver has been a resounding failure. And the city now has one of the highest achievement gaps between white and nonwhite students in the country. Yet district leaders have continued to double down on their project of dismantling and privatizing Denver public schools.

“Merit Pay” and Racial Justice

The main policy that has pushed teachers to strike is the ProComp “merit pay” program. In this excessively opaque and unstable system, teacher salaries and bonuses depend on a series of metrics such as state testing progress or working in a low-income school. Initially, ProComp was pitched as a voluntary program through which teachers could make some additional money. Teacher union officials, due either to naivety or cowardice, actively supported its implementation.

ProComp has steadily become a vehicle to lower the base pay of teachers, to cut district contributions to educators’ retirement funds, and to impose the privatizers’ pedagogical vision upon Denver schools. Teachers complain of the financial instability caused by not knowing one’s salary from one year to the next. Others note that receiving bonuses frequently has little to do with their personal performance as a teacher, since so much depends on how their schools are designated by the district.

Rather than incentivizing education, ProComp has forced educators to focus their efforts on “teaching to the test” and jumping through hoops designed for them by high-paid district administrators. This is particularly true at the low-income, “high priority” schools where the district provides extra pay for teachers. As Kirkland observes, “a major reason why these schools have such high teacher turnover is that you’re watched under a microscope there. District people can walk into your classroom at any moment and surprise evaluations are the norm. Teachers don’t like being constantly surveilled — and giving them a small financial bonus is not going to change that.”

The current bargaining impasse is primarily due to the district’s insistence on channeling funds to provide large retention bonuses for “high-priority” schools. Union representatives have responded by demanding that these funds, and more, go to increasing the base salaries of all educators and to providing more “lanes” for regular pay increases.

Like in Los Angeles, corporate-bought district leaders such as superintendent Susan Cordova have painted their regressive policies in antiracist colors. According to them, “merit pay” is a necessary instrument to achieve equity for students of color, who make up the vast majority of the district. In the hope of intimidating teachers from striking, district leaders have leaned on organizations like the Colorado Black Round Table, whose leader John Bailey has accused educators of potentially harming “black and brown kids” by taking away money “from hard, challenging schools in the name of a better quality of living for the teachers.”

Nobody in the teachers’ camp denies that public education has deep structural problems, particularly when it comes to working-class African-Americans and Latinos. Like all major institutions in the United States, public schools are not free from the impact of institutionalized racism. Yet it hardly follows from this that privatization and “merit pay” are viable solutions for improving the educational opportunities of oppressed communities.

In fact, as union activists continue to point out, the city’s data shows that bonuses don’t actually improve teacher retention in schools with higher percentages of students of color. In Denver, like across the nation, privatization schemes and high-stakes testing have not only failed to close the achievement gap, but they have actually exacerbated school segregation and racial disparities. It was therefore more than rhetoric when the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) last October declared that “the District is creating a system that furthers institutionalized racism and promotes segregation . . . It is time to put students and school communities first.” According to union vice president Christina Medina, addressing teacher turnover and winning equity requires fully funding public “community schools” capable of providing comprehensive wrap-around services to high-need students and families.

The Strike Build-Up

In the lead-up to today’s strike, the Denver privatizers’ social-justice veneer has become increasingly exposed. Most egregiously, district leaders threatened to report educators to immigration authorities if immigrant teachers working on a visa decided to strike. During Trump’s federal shutdown, the district also appealed to furloughed workers to work as scabs. And to assist the district’s efforts to head off a strike, the hedge-fund investors known as Democrats for Education Reform inundated Denver residents with a mass text campaign issued in the name of a nonexistent front group called “Support Students, Support Teachers.”

For their part, the students of color in whose name district leaders deign to speak have made their own voices heard. On January 28, over a thousand students participated in sit-ins to support their teachers. In the words of seventeen-year-old student Amayas Gonzalez, “We want to be really disruptive on purpose because it’s not about being compliant or complicit . . . We want to make a statement for our teachers.”

This level of militancy is new not only for Denver’s students, but for its teachers as well. Given the DCTA’s longstanding deference to Democratic politicians, it’s a sign of the times that Denver’s strike is happening at all. Whereas Los Angeles’ strike was systematically built over four years by a new, radical union leadership, Denver’s action is taking place under the aegis of the union’s old guard, which until recently was reticent to confront the district, let alone organize a work stoppage. As one teacher (who asked to remain anonymous) put it, “to be honest, the general perception among teachers was that the union didn’t really do much.”

Two key developments led to the union’s progressive reorientation. In 2016, a group of social justice educators inspired by the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike and its CORE caucus, formed the Caucus of Today’s Teachers in the hopes of turning DCTA into an organization capable of fighting back for teachers as well as students and the communities they serve. In the spring of 2017, Denver’s caucus succeeded in electing its member Christina Medina as DCTA vice president and it has subsequently won almost half of the seats to the union leadership. The efforts of caucus members to transform the union have been met with an enthusiastic response from below — since the push towards a possible strike began in earnest half a year ago, DCTA’s membership has surged from roughly 52 to 68 percent of Denver educators. And with new union elections pending, the old guard is clearly wary of getting swept out of office if it doesn’t go along with the upsurge.

The second major reorienting factor is the national teachers’ upsurge, which has inspired Denver teachers to press upon their union to take action. Medina explains the dynamic:

When teachers saw these other strikes, beginning with West Virginia, they gave us so much hope and they raised our expectations. I’ve talked to a lot of teachers here who are still scared, who say they can’t afford to strike. But now the strike in Los Angeles has done so much to dispel these fears. If they could do it, why can’t we?

An Opening Battle

Teacher activists in Denver look at their work stoppage as their first shot in a struggle to take back the city’s public schools from the privatizers’ grip. To quote Justin Kirkland, “we see this as the opening skirmish in a longer war to save public education from the billionaires. And I’m confident that we have the power to win.”

Not very long ago, such proclamations may have sounded like wishful thinking or leftist bluster. But today, after almost a year’s worth of victorious mass strikes, and a worker-won end to the federal shutdown, working-class confidence feels more than justified. With a late February strike now set in Oakland, and a new strike looming in West Virginia, there’s no end in sight to the teachers’ revolt. And nobody should underestimate the explosive mix of a strike wave combined with the socialist electoral upsurge led by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’ll be a long time before we have the billionaires on the ropes — but at least our side is now putting up a real fight.