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.
Strikes of any sort are a risky business. Strikes by labor organizations without the backing of other community institutions in the face of a civic alignment that includes major business players and a boat load of “liberal” Democrats are high probably losers. Colorado IAF came to the defense of the Denver classroom teachers to change that calculus because the defense of classroom teachers was the right thing to do, because teachers and schools matter greatly, because the school privatization movement undermines public education and because Denver teachers chose to fight back.
All that being true there was one more perhaps overriding motivation for the intervention. Aggressively siding with and winning a public fight on the side of teachers would help build a citizens organization of considerable importance in one of the country’s major power centers.
The DCTA/IAF alliance first explored through small meetings burst into public view on Dec 19, 2018 when a high school auditorium (Montebello in the Denver Public School District) was packed out with 400 attendees. Powerful stories by teachers, parents and students stood front and center. Two Denver Public School Board members were present, the first time board members had interacted face to face with teacher leaders and community backers. Both board members made commitments to support the teacher’s demands for fair compensation. Also present were acting superintendent Ron Cabrera and the incoming superintendent Susana Cordova and a mix of local politicians. The DCTA/CO IAF alliance shortly thereafter met 3 more board members (engaging 5 of 7) along with five city council members.
Knocked back by the unexpected alliance, the Portfolio Reformers turned to their ace in the hole - a plea for intervention by Colorado’s Governor, Jared Polis, made by the Superintendent of DPS. Given the penchant of Democratic Governors in the West (think Colorado’s Elias Ammons and Arizona’s Bruce Babbitt) to break strikes when corporate leaders come calling, CO IAF moved fast with a blocking action. They formulated a letter of support for the educators right to strike. Within 24 hours 20 major institutional leaders signed on. A day later, the letter was delivered to Governor Polis and released to the media in a high profile press conference. Governor Polis backed off. When his non-interventionist posture was affirmed the same group of CO IAF signatories immediately lauded his restraint in a second widely publicized letter.
After the Denver teachers walked out and the rallies began, CO IAF redoubled its efforts to secure a victory. With swelling turnouts, sermons and homilies, and media appearances CO IAF continued to bear down on the school board decision makers. IAF leader, Dr. Joyce Brooks, emerged as a media star on the side of teachers, students and families. Finally, three days after the strike began the teachers won out. DCTA gained a pay increase worth $23 million (+11.7% average base salary) along with a sharply improved power position going forward.
CO IAF came away from the fight as an emerging visible player inside the circle of Denver’s (and Colorado’s) power political decision makers. The bond between DCTA, the CEA, CO IAF and the broader IAF network was strengthened. The Portfolio Reformers lost a big one to an alliance with a bright future.