The Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) went out on strike on Monday, February 10, 2019. It was the first Denver teachers strike in 25 years. Paid 37% lower than the going national rate, teachers were fed up with the underfunding of public education. Many teachers were making less than five years previous. Others had worked with no raise for ten years. The powder keg was ready to blow up.
After the strike was called 75% of Denver Public School District (DPS) teachers walked out. Membership in DCTA jumped from 60 to 68%.
The explosion extended well beyond the bounds of DPS. Even beyond the Colorado state line. Put to the test was the grand educational experiment advanced by some of the “billionaire boys” (as Diane Ravitch dubbed them), the likes of Philip Anschutz tasked with creating a civic organization to press market based reforms from outside DPS. The billionaire boys underwrote the ascendance of Michael Bennet (now junior senator from Colorado) to the superintendency of DPS. Bennett had worked for Anschutz for six years helping to engineer oil and movie theater projects that were part of Anschutz’ business portfolio. Bennet’s charge was to implement the reform regime. He launched in having had no educational experience (unless serving 2 years as Chief of Staff fo bar entrepreneur turned Governor John Hickenlooper counts). Bennet’s guinea pigs for the reform experiment were mostly poor minority children/youth and their families. 70+% of DPS students qualified for free or reduced lunch prices. A majority of DPS students are African-American or Latino.
The core assumption of Bennet and the Portfolio Reformers was that DPS classrooms were populated by bad teachers. To help retrain this crew of incompetents they turned to Michelle Rhee and Teach For America’s Wendy Kopp, at the time national celebrities in the bad teacher rehabilitation movement.
When the Colorado Industrial Areas Foundation (CO IAF) took stock of the situation in the fall of 2018, IAF leaders and organizers discovered that not a single community based organization had weighed in behind teachers. Also sitting on the sidelines were religious institutions of all faiths. The teachers were on their own with both flanks exposed to the Portfolio Reformers who relentlessly demeaned teacher performance while exerting downward pressure on salaries.
Lurking in the background of this drive to disrupt and privatize public education was the growing mound of evidence that the market driven reforms themselves were failing.