Dozens 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.
Holding signs and chanting slogans, the teachers marched around the Capitol in the morning and then planned to meet with legislators.
All classes in Englewood were canceled Monday after more than 150 teachers in that district announced plans to walk out of classes and take their concerns about school funding to the Capitol in support of the Colorado Education Association’s Lobby Day.
Among other priorities, teachers at the Capitol want 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 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.”