Chanting “You left me no choice, I have to use my teacher voice!” scores of Colorado teachers converged on the state Capitol on Monday to demand changes in school funding and to lobby for higher teacher pay and a stronger retirement fund.
The teachers, who gathered just before noon in the Capitol rotunda, made so much noise that some state representatives and senators left their chambers to watch the rally. A few gave impromptu speeches in support of the teachers, who took a day off work to attend the annual Colorado Education Association’s Lobby Day.
The teachers say lagging salaries and potential cuts to the retirement system will make it impossible for younger educators to remain in the profession for an entire career.
“When I was in school, you knew you weren’t going to get rich,” said Bob Mantooh, a physical education teacher at Kaiser Elementary School in Denver. “You knew you would get a decent salary, and when you were ready to retire you would be OK. For these young teachers, there’s no future. You won’t get people entering into this profession. They don’t want to go into poverty teaching.”
Englewood canceled classes Monday after more than 150 teachers in that district announced plans to walk out of classes, and teachers also came from Denver Public Schools and the Boulder Valley School District.
Scott Silva, an Englewood High School English teacher, said they had support from the administration. Colorado is too wealthy of a state to have poorly underfunded schools, he said. He recently used a social media fundraising site to buy new books for his literature classes.
“It shouldn’t be this way in a state like Colorado where there’s a budget surplus,” he said. “Let’s start taking care of the kids a little bit.”
The teachers lined out the door Monday afternoon to attend a House Finance Committee hearing on Senate Bill 200, which would cut public employee retirement benefits to shore up PERA, the state retirement plan.
Committee room where PERA bill is being heard is packed with teachers. #copolitics #coleg pic.twitter.com/zLbKsqON8g
— Jesse Aaron Paul (@JesseAPaul) April 16, 2018
The education association opposes raising the retirement age to 65, wants to limit contributions from current educators and to ensure adequate cost-of-living adjustments are built in. However, Republicans are unlikely to support those changes, and their backing would be needed for any legislation to pass because they control the Senate.
Callie Gonyea, who is in her second year of teaching at Ellis Elementary School in Denver, said she wants to be a teacher for her entire career. But she needs a solid retirement plan.
“We do it because we love our students,” Gonyea said. “We love to see them grow. The light bulb moments — that’s why we do it.”
For legislators who took time to speak with teachers, the reception was friendly. Tiffany Boyd and Rebecca Lavendore, who teach at Louisville Elementary School in the Boulder Valley, were on their way to thank a Republican senator who recognized PERA was a bipartisan issue and was supporting some of the education association’s recommendations.
Colorado’s teachers do not collect Social Security upon retirement, and, for many, they do not earn enough money to invest in other retirement plans such as IRAs, Lavendore said.
“PERA is it for us,” Boyd said. “It needs to be viable and make people want to stay in teaching.”
Among other priorities for teachers at the Capitol is a call for legislators to commit to a freeze on corporate tax breaks “until school funding is restored or until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.” Their union says the average Colorado teacher is paying about $650 per out of their own pockets on students’ needs.
The demonstration came amid questions over Senate Bill 1 — Republicans’ effort to pay for a chunk of the billions of dollars in needed fixes to Colorado’s roads with $495 million this year. The measure passed the Senate unanimously after the GOP reached a compromise with Democrats in the chamber, but it faces an unclear future in the Democratic-controlled House.
House Democrats are concerned about a potential within the measure that could allocate taxpayer dollars to road bonds in the future, which they say could siphon money away from education.
“I think the question is: How do we invest both in transportation and also in education without pitting them against each other?” asked Rep. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat.
The top Republican in the statehouse seemed frustrated by that prompt.
“I think we need to look at these things in their own right,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cańon City. “Road funding — we have an opportunity to do something the legislature hasn’t done in decades. I truly hope that we don’t fail and miss that opportunity.”
He added that the constantly growing amount of money that goes to education, in comparison with what has been spent on roads, is apples and oranges. “Roads need more money and we have an opportunity to do that,” Grantham said. “Quit making excuses.”
Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said advocacy at the Capitol for raising teacher pay in Colorado — similar to what has been seen in Oklahoma, West Virginia and other state — is misguided since individual school boards set those spending levels.
“We can certainly have that conversation,” he said. “But I think an important message to the people of Colorado is: While that advocacy may have been effective in some of those other states, in Colorado we at the legislature don’t set teachers’ salaries.”
Holbert also rejected the idea that the state is falling behind others in school funding, saying it’s more in the middle of the road.
“Remember, in Colorado, ours is one of six state constitutions that identifies local control,” he said. “So in this state, this conversation is a blend between what we can do here at the Capitol and what the local school board does in its local district. And also the role of the voters … in the district — their ability to have input on what funding is in their district.”
He added that the legislature is putting more money into education that it ever has before.
Democrats recognized the additional dollars allocated this year, but said still more has to be done to ensure funding for schools and educators.
“Education funding is a top priority,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “… We are here to listen. We need to continue to make sure that we make education funding a top priority. But that also means that we need to go to the ballot box and there need to be a ballot initiative where the people of Colorado can vote on some of these issues that teachers face every day.”
The CEA is also demanding that teachers’ pensions, part of the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association, be stabilized to avoid discouraging potential teachers from entering the profession.
“The positive state revenue forecast clearly demonstrates there is substantially more money available this year and therefore we can and must do a better job funding our public schools,” CEA President Kerria Dallman said in a written statement. “Providing our students with the schools they deserve must be the top budget priority for lawmakers.”