In the run-up to this week’s rallies, teachers watched as the list of districts forced to close schools due to teacher absences grew and grew. Aurora teachers walked out despite contract language prohibiting work actions of any kind. Pueblo teachers are set to strike in the coming month. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, which represents teachers in the largest district in the state, voted to strike in January 2019 if their compensation negotiations fail.
Although Colorado’s economy is routinely touted as one of the nation’s strongest, Colorado schools face an $822 million budget shortfall, spend $2,700 less per pupil than the national average, and offer the least-competitive teacher salaries in the nation.
Over half of Colorado’s schools have cut back to a four day week to save money. In rural communities, like Cortez, Colorado, chronic teacher shortages have forced districts to hire uncredentialed teachers who enter the classroom with only a few months of training and a bachelor’s degree.
In many districts around the state, crucial school support employees like paraprofessionals, who provide translation for English learners and support for students with disabilities, survive on poverty wages. Heidi, a Colorado Springs teacher, spoke to the challenges faced by paraprofessionals: “They’re paid, on average, $10 an hour. There are high school students that get paid more than that at their part-time job. That makes it impossible to keep paras, to hire paras, and then to hold on to them, because the turnover rate is so high. If [students] are getting a new para every other month, it throws everything about their school experience off.”
A combination of right-wing laws, from the so-called “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights” (TABOR), to the Gallagher Amendment, to the “Budget Stabilization Factor” adopted in 2009, has created a grossly unequal patchwork of school funding systems across the state and stymied attempts to increase funding at a statewide level.
“You can’t invest in a Pinto and expect a Bentley,” said Gerardo Muñoz, one of the Denver teachers who MC’d the rally. “You get what you pay for.”
Chants of “Whatever it takes,” “Classrooms not corporations” and “Not going back” rang out from the crowd on Friday. Organizers called not only for more education funding, but for multi-national unity and justice for Black and Brown, working class, disabled, and immigrant students. Danny Stang, father of seven, spoke about racial disparities in school funding and reminded attendees about the importance of multi-national unity saying, “The oppressor only sees one color–green.”
A class-conscious movement to defend public education is spreading. Teachers across Colorado and the nation are sending a message to those who would starve the schools to feed the rich: Until their demands are met, the fight will continue.