Citing low and unpredictable pay, Denver teachers may be the next to strike

Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Teachers say Denver Public Schools’ compensation structure is inadequate and arbitrary, and they’re ready to strike in demand of a fairer system.

As a wave of organizing energy spreads across the country following this month’s teacher strike in West Virginia, educators in Colorado’s largest public school system are the latest to stand up and demand a better deal.

The board of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) voted unanimously on Tuesday night to ask its members to strike if the union and district can’t reach an agreement on a new teacher compensation plan by midnight Wednesday.

The decision comes after several days of walk-in protests held by teachers at schools throughout the district, which serves about 92,000 Denver students and employs over 4,200 teachers. It’s the first time union leadership has taken such a step since the 1990s.

“Many DPS teachers cannot afford basic essentials, like health insurance, child care and a mortgage,” said DCTA president Henry Roman in a statement released Tuesday night. “We are working to create a compensation plan for teachers that allows them to focus on their profession for the long term.”

At issue is a system known as ProComp, a “pay-for-performance” program first instituted district-wide in 2005. Its compensation structure includes categories like “Market Incentives,” which are bonuses that encourage educators to teach in underserved schools, as well as payouts for teachers whose students perform well on state tests.

A sample of the incentives and bonuses available to teachers under Denver Public Schools’ “ProComp” system.

Teachers have long faulted the system for being too complicated and capricious, with bonuses that can vary widely from year to year, making even basic financial planning difficult. They’re also critical of its low base pay, and the fact that yearly salary increases are capped at 14 years of service.

In February, the DCTA released its proposal for a new compensation schedule that it says provides “real stability and predictability” to its members. The plan raises base pay, allows teachers to receive annual salary increases for up to 20 years of service, and drastically simplifies ProComp’s incentivization scheme.

A growing movement

Denver teachers are the latest to draw inspiration from this month’s historic wildcat strike by teachers in West Virginia, which shut down schools across the state for nearly two weeks and resulted in a five percent pay raise for all state employees.

Teachers in Oklahoma are set to go on strike on April 2 if lawmakers don’t meet their demands for better pay — and members of the state’s public employees’ union voted last week to join them. Kentucky teachers have also threatened to strike over proposed cuts to the state’s public pension system.

“Teachers are not willing to just cave,” DCTA deputy executive director Corey Kern told Denver7 News on Tuesday. “I think a lot of folks are inspired by West Virginia and Oklahoma.”

Educators in Denver and across Colorado are right to feel underpaid. By some measures, they’re the worst-compensated teachers in the entire country; while they earn nominally higher salaries on average than teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma, Colorado’s higher overall incomes and costs of living may mean that teachers here have a harder time getting by.

An analysis of teacher wage data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that as a percentage of state median income, Colorado high school teachers are paid less than teachers in any other state or the District of Columbia. The picture is even more grim for Colorado’s middle and elementary school teachers, with the median salaries for each at least 25 percent less than the state’s overall median income — also the lowest figures in the country.

As with many issues of public finance in Colorado, much of the blame for low teacher pay can be placed on the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), the 1992 constitutional amendment that severely limited state and municipal governments’ ability to fund social services. As teachers and West Virginia, Oklahoma, and elsewhere fight back against the draconian cuts forced on their states by low taxes, Colorado must reckon with the additional obstacle posed by the austerity measures enshrined in its state constitution.

For now, Denver teachers will hope to come to an agreement with district negotiators by midnight on Wednesday, when the current ProComp agreement expires — otherwise, the DCTA will begin preparing for a full strike vote. If the conversations taking place among teachers across the country are any indication, they’re unlikely to be the last.