After fifteen months of negotiations and three days of Denver’s first teacher strike since 1994, Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association came to a tentative agreement just after 6:00 a.m. on February 14. Union members and the Denver school board still need to vote to ratify this agreement to make it official. In short, the new compensation agreement is more transparent, will allow teachers to earn base salary raises more quickly, and will be more competitive with neighboring districts. We are hopeful that this new salary schedule will encourage Denver educators to stay in DPS and attract the best educators to work in our schools. However, our work for strong community schools throughout Denver is nowhere near over. Although we started out small, Denver’s Caucus of Today’s Teachers has been working diligently to build community relationships and to make our union more democratic and proactive.
Higher educator salaries won’t immediately change some systemic challenges that Denver students and communities face, but these salaries are more competitive with neighboring school districts and can help retain teachers. Since public schools are inherently part of the communities in which they’re located, having a teacher force that grows stronger and more experienced each year will ensure that neighborhood schools continue to be anchors in their communities. Throughout negotiations, we argued in favor of base pay to promote teacher retention because we firmly believe that retention contributes to students’ success. This work did not begin just before the impending strike, however. Caucus members have been building power among union members and with community organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation for over a year. Caucus organizer Tiffany Choi was largely responsible for connecting union members to the IAF, which helped build support for our educators.
Now, just as our community fought for teachers, our educators must continue to fight for our community by actively working against the systemic racism and oppression our students face. Over two years ago, our caucus worked with nearly 30 educators from across the city to develop our platform, which is the foundation for our work and guides our decision making. Denver students deserve a teaching force that is rooted in Denver’s communities and in whom students can see themselves and their multiple aspects of identity reflected, who are actively anti-racist in their classrooms and curriculum. They deserve teachers who are taking steps to disrupt the interpersonal and institutional racism that is pervasive in our country. Denver teachers - especially white teachers - need to reflect on their practice and ensure that their curriculum, pedagogy, and learning environment is anti-racist and culturally responsive so that all DPS students see themselves represented in curriculum and pedagogy throughout their educational experiences.
As educators in Denver, we must push back against the flaws of DPS reforms that have not addressed the inequities our students face. We must work for social justice, equity, and inclusion for all students, as discussed in this journal article by a caucus member. For at least the past decade, DPS has championed unpredictable bonuses for educators, the unchecked growth of charter schools, and the portfolio model of school choice throughout Denver. These reforms have led the school board to close 48 of Denver's public open-enrollment community schools in the last 15 years. Closing these schools has re-segregated Denver’s students and eroded the foundations of Denver’s neighborhoods. Communities across the city, particularly our working-class communities of color, have seen their community schools charterized, co-located, and closed.
Denver’s educators have had the same union president for the past decade. Currently, Henry Roman is running for his sixth two-year term because President is the one office in our union that is not term-limited. While Henry ran unopposed in two of the past five elections, the most recent election in 2017 resulted in a run-off election in which the Caucus of Today’s Teachers candidate lost by fewer than 50 votes. This very close election revealed (perhaps unsurprisingly to some) that having the same union president for a decade - longer than most DPS educators have worked in this district - was becoming frustrating to union members.
As we look to the upcoming November 2019 Denver school board elections, it is important that educators work within their communities and across the city to “flip the board.” For the April 2019 union elections, we urge our fellow educators to vote for union leaders who are committed to electing school board members who are not funded by out-of-state entities, and who prioritize culturally responsive, anti-racist education. Denver learned in the fall 2017 school board elections that it was quite possible for a veteran educator, Dr. Carrie Olson, to defeat a DFER-funded incumbent by nearly 7 percentage points. After that election, Caucus of Today’s Teachers members criticized the union political fund committee members for giving less than $10,000 to Olson’s campaign, while devoting six figures to other school board campaigns. Denver students deserve schools that are centers of their communities, are staffed by experienced educators, and can be counted on to serve the community for years to come. Denver educators must pay attention, stay informed, and actively engage in the upcoming elections, both within our union and in the city of Denver’s school board elections.
Hayley Breden is a high school social studies teacher in Denver, Colorado. She is a founding member of the Caucus of Today’s Teachers in Denver, and earned her M.A. in Educational Foundations, Policy, and Practice from CU-Boulder. You can listen to an interview with her about the Denver teachers strike from WBUR’s radio show Here and Now.