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The Next Frontier of the Teachers’ Movement

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Denver teachers are about to go on strike and who can blame them, given the utterly ridiculous and completely unacceptable pay incentive and bonus system placed upon them:

The issue at hand in Denver is more localized. The teachers union and the school district had been negotiating for more than a year over how to revamp the district’s complex pay-for-performance system, called ProComp.

Late Friday night, an hour and a half before the most recent agreement was set to expire, the union rejected the district’s latest offer. Although the district offered to invest an additional $20 million into teacher pay and revamp ProComp to look more like a traditional salary schedule — which is what the union wanted — union negotiators said the district’s offer didn’t go far enough.

That rejection ended negotiations and set the stage for a strike. The union represents more than 60 percent of Denver’s 5,700 teachers, counselors, nurses, and other instructional staff.

Union officials did not release the number of teachers who voted on the strike or how many members it currently has. A spokesperson for the Department of Labor and Employment said strike votes are internal union matters over which the department does not have any purview. Kern said the vote was conducted electronically by a third party.

Cordova is in her third week on the job as superintendent. She has reminded the public repeatedly that she started her career as a Denver teacher and counts several teachers among her best friends. But her pledge to be more responsive than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, has been tested in the bargaining process and now will be tested even further.

Denver teachers have long been frustrated by ProComp. In its most recent iteration, ProComp paid teachers a base salary and then allowed them to earn additional bonuses and incentives for things such as working in a high-poverty school or hard-to-fill position.

Denver voters passed a special tax increase in 2005 to fund the ProComp incentives. The tax is expected to generate $33 million this year.

But many teachers found ProComp confusing. Relying on bonuses and incentives caused their pay to fluctuate in ways that made financial planning difficult, they said.

Chris Landis, a fifth grade teacher at Colfax Elementary, said his salary has varied by as much as $5,000 from one year to the next in the four years he’s been teaching in Denver. He sees the union proposal as creating more stability over the long run, which makes the strike a risk worth taking.

“As someone who wants to be a teacher for the rest of my life, the union proposal has a lot going for it,” he said. “Education is worth fighting for. I’m willing to take a personal hit to guarantee the future for our kids.”

What? How can this possibly work? If you are a Wall Street executive, a $5,000 difference in your bonus from one year to another might not matter much. If you are a teacher making $50,000, that can be devastating. The city claims it needs these incentives to get the best teachers, but all this would do is push good teachers out of the profession if they don’t get the incentive pay, as they wouldn’t make enough money to make it worthwhile. I sure wouldn’t that kind of instability in my life. The city wants the state to intervene. Jared Polis has a reputation as a very progressive Democrat. As a new governor, this is going to be the first big crisis he faces. His reputation will largely rest on what he does here. If he tries to intervene to help the school administrators, that would be awfully damning. As for the Denver teachers, seeing strikes work all over the place has to be really reinforcing and make them feel good about winning, but of course they are scared because striking is scary. But undermining this incentive system is absolutely worth the risk.

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