The Economic Context of the Denver Teachers Strike

Philip Walker
Mar 16, 2019 · 6 min read
Denver teachers and their supporters rally for fair pay in front of the Colorado State Capitol on Jan. 30, 2019

DENVER — February 26, 2019

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has reached a tentative payment agreement with Denver Public Schools after three days of striking. The teachers union has still not ratified the agreement after a week and a half, and it’s easy to see why when comparing the tentative agreement to the union’s final proposal. The tentative agreement is substantially more generous than payment agreement that expired January 18, but it does not quite approach what the union considers fair. Here is a look at the money matters in the final proposals from both the DCTA and DPS as well as what the new, tenuous compromise means for teachers.

The primary aim of the DCTA’s final proposed payment schedule is to better reward longevity, which they claim will decrease turnover rates and increase the quality of students’ education experiences. The DCTA claims that the existing payment schedule is both unfair and too complicated. DPS superintendent Susana Cordova echoed that sentiment in a 2018 interview with Westword.

The union wanted DPS to reallocate some $8 million to the ProComp Special Revenue Fund from its existing 2018–2019 general fund of $1.135 billion. The current budget allocation for teachers’ salaries is $577.5 million. Removing $8 million from the General Fund is a 0.7-percent decrease. Adding $8 million to the salary allocation is a 1.4-percent increase.

The final DCTA schedule has a lower base salary for new teachers, $45,800 plus incentives for teachers with a bachelor’s degree compared to the final DPS schedule which has a base salary of $48,000 plus incentives. The union’s schedule rewards longevity more generously than the DPS schedule, however, so that $1,624 will be added to a teacher’s salaries for every five consecutive years that they teach within the district. Under the standing, expired agreement, longevity increments are applied only after 15 consecutive years in-district, and then every five years after that. After 40 consecutive years in the district, the maximum incremental period, a teacher earns an extra $2,437 for longevity annually. Under the union’s proposed schedule, a teacher with 40 years in the district earn an extra $12,992 for longevity annually. The DPS counter proposal does not appear to have longevity-based increments beyond annual evaluation-based stepwise increases and a lane change after ten years of teaching.

Each schedule provides a salary bonus to incentivize teachers to work at different schools and in different positions based on vulnerability and prestige. The DCTA proposes a $1,000 incentive for distinguished schools (awarded based on high performance in holistic criteria) a $2,500 incentive for hard-to-staff positions, a $1,750 incentive for positions at Title I schools (schools that receive federal funding to support low income populations) and a possible $1,000 reimbursement for tuition or student loans spent on teachers’ professional development. The proposed DPS incentives are $2,500 for Title I schools, $2,500 for hard-to-staff positions and a $2,500 retention bonus for the 30 “highest priority schools.” The current, expired schedule does not provide annual incentives.

The union’s schedule also expands and simplifies payment lanes into increments of 15 experience credits (awarded based on approved college credit-hours and district-sponsored professional development programs called PDUs) and relative level of degree which allows teachers to earn higher salaries over shorter periods of time. Under the current DCTA schedule, a teacher with a master’s degree or a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 45 credits of experience will have a base pay of $52,550. DPS’s current counter proposal allows a teacher with an MA, a “BA and longevity,” a BA and advanced license or a BA and National Board Certification to earn a base pay of $49,000 annually. Under the standing, expired DPS schedule, a teacher with a master’s degree has a base pay of $42,278 annually.

Because of the way credits are earned, the credit system is the source of the most crucial difference in each schedule’s lane-advancement model. A new teacher with a master’s degree is automatically placed in the MA lane where they would earn a base pay of $52,550 under the DCTA proposal or $49,000 base pay under the DPS proposal. A teacher who is working toward a master’s degree while teaching in-district earns advancement credits for each-credit hour they complete toward the degree. Master’s of Education programs are usually 30 credit-hours total. This means that a teacher halfway through a master’s program would be in the second payment lane of the DCTA schedule, earning a base pay of $48,050. That same teacher would earn a base pay of $45,500 in the first lane of the DPS schedule. A master’s degree in education from Colorado’s top school for teaching, the University of Northern Colorado, costs $17,250 without any financial aid. Both DCTA and DPS schedules reimburse teachers for tuition or loans up to $6,000.

The other way to earn credits is to complete Professional Development Units, which DPS describes as “differentiated, job embedded action research learning with application to practice designed to support teachers and student service providers to improve or acquire skills focused on topics of student need, including closing the opportunity gap.” PDUs do not cost teachers money. Each completed PDU is worth three credits, the same as a single course in a master’s degree program. Payment lanes on the DCTA schedule are in increments of 15 credits, and lanes on the DPS schedule are increments of 20. A teacher must complete five PDUs to advance lanes on the DCTA schedule, and because its lanes are not divisible by three, the DPS schedule requires that teachers complete seven PDUs to advance. PDUs take three to nine months to complete.

According to Colorado Department of Education statistics, the average salary for a teacher in Colorado is $52,728. Under the DCTA schedule, a teacher would need a BA and 45 credits or an MA to earn that as base pay. Under the DPS schedule, a teacher would need an MA and 30 credits or an “MA and longevity,” an MA and advanced license or an MA and National Board Certification to earn that amount. Under the current, expired schedule, a teacher with a doctorate cannot earn the state average as base pay.

According to DPS, the new, tentative agreement invests an additional $23 million in teacher pay and includes an average base salary increase of 11.7 percent next year and a cost-of-living increase the following two years. Drafted by members of the DCTA and DPS during an all-night negotiation, the new agreement meets both parties’ final proposals nearly in the middle, but has some important caveats.

The tentative agreement awards one lane change for teacher certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards as opposed to the union’s proposed two lanes. Credit-based lane changes are at increments of 18, effectively halfway between the DCTA and DPS proposals if a teacher earns credits solely through PDUs. However, teachers are now limited to only two PDUs per year, meaning that it will take at least three years to advance lanes. If a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 36 credits from PDUs then earns a master’s degree, credits from completed PDUs do not carry over and the teacher will remain in the same payment lane. Except for lane one/step one, starting pay in the tentative agreement is across the board less than what the union proposed despite the tentative agreement’s wider credit increments between payment lanes.

Although the strike is over, and Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association seem to be on the verge of finally reaching an agreement, the way forward is still rocky. Alex Edwards, a special education teacher for Denver Public Schools and Denver Classroom Teachers Association member, is looking forward to healing the stress fractures afflicted along the way.

“Before the strike I felt that the district did not value me as an individual or my work with students,” Edwards said. “After the strike the bridges are being mended, but trust is not something that will come easily. It will take time and the district showing they are truly working with teachers to make students succeed.”

“[DPS] kept lying during negotiations about money, cost and what teachers want,” Edwards claimed. “They said the union’s proposal would have 80 percent of teachers changing lanes each year when even the state said on the high end it would be 30 percent.” DPS claimed they came up with the figure independently.

“The district has to rebuild trust with teachers, but hopefully they don’t break any more trust. As for the agreement. I think it will help Denver schools gain more qualified teachers and have teachers being at schools longer,” Edwards concluded.

In a press release, DPS said, “We’re very pleased to have reached this agreement that provides our educators with a fair, transparent, and highly competitive salary system.” In response, Edwards said, “The only thing is that I hope that with this agreement we can have the best teachers for our students.”

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