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OPINION: 50 Years of ‘Political Theater’

Over the last half-century, DPS teachers have struck three times for better working conditions and provisions for students. So why did we have to fight the same fight in 2019?

By Karen Vittetoe

Special to the GPHN

I was a junior at Denver’s Manual High School in 1994 when my teachers joined a picket line, holding up signs, and telling students not to go inside our school. We spent the next five days in chaos, with scattered substitute teachers, a lot of pointless worksheets, and discussions about which teachers would cross the picket line. I left before lunch each day.

My teachers were fighting for smaller class sizes, protected lunch breaks, more planning time, and a 40-hour work week. They were also asking for a measly 2.15 percent pay increase. Then-Gov. Roy Romer had to intervene after months of failed negotiations between the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools.

Last month, I lived this all over again, only this time as a teacher and a parent. In 1994, Denver Public Schools threatened striking teachers with $100-per-day fines. Twenty-five years later, the district asked the state to intervene again to prevent teachers like me from walking the line.

Over the last half-century, Denver teachers have struck three times for better working conditions and provisions for students. In 1969, the strike lasted 14 days over many of the same issues—better pay, better student services, and improved equity in our schools.

So why did we have to fight the same fight in 2019?

Perhaps Denver Public Schools management believed we were being dramatic.

The head of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment criticized the most recent teacher pay bargaining session as “political theater,” suggesting we just needed to work harder to find common ground.

Did our state and our district management think we flooded the streets in #Red4Ed shirts, with bullhorns in hand, chants memorized, and teamsters and firefighters and construction workers and students and parents marching alongside us in solidarity. . . to win an Oscar?

The value of diversity

I was 11 years old when my mother moved us to Denver. We were returning to the neighborhood where she grew up, near Denver’s Park Hill Elementary, and from where, at the height of the “white flight” migration to the suburbs in the 1960s, her parents had fled. Always burdened by her parents’ blatant racism, my mother told us, “We’re moving straight to Denver, not the suburbs, and you girls will learn the value of diversity.”

Very different from the tiny upstate New York town we moved from, Manual High School offered me a completely new community: a Chicano mathletics coach, a black science teacher, and a set of friends from multiple races, language backgrounds, and family dynamics. I was introduced for the first time to the idea of LGBTQ acceptance.

That community, along with a series of deeply inspiring teachers at Manual, are the reasons I became a teacher and why I came back to this district after teaching elsewhere. My mother’s fierce attitude about the value of diversity is why my daughter walks with me into Denver South High each day to take classes alongside refugees and immigrants, students of color, and of every religious belief the world offers.

A few reasons

I love working at one of the nation’s most diverse schools, with its Newcomer Center, LGBTQ Alliance Club, Muslim Alliance, Black Student Alliance, Latino Alliance, and staff members whose faces and backgrounds represent those of our students.

The reason we struck last month was not political theater.

It was because school district management threatened this rich community that I, and the majority of Denver’s 4,600 teachers, went on strike.

It was because we had been negotiating our master contract for 15 months while the district dragged its feet.

It was because our pay system, unlike any other school district in the state, relies on unpredictable bonuses to reward teachers, and pits us against each other by linking bonuses to teacher evaluations.

It was because the “education reform” movement has gripped our city and shut down all but three of the comprehensive high schools I grew up with, charterizing the rest and stripping teachers of public retirement pensions.

It was because Denver Public Schools spends millions on administrative bonuses instead of on teachers’ salaries.

It was because I could never afford to live in Denver on the salary I earn today.

It was because I pay bills with my second job, where I earn $225 per week “teaching” at the University of Phoenix, with up to 28 students per class, each one producing one to two essays a week that have to be graded. I keep this online teaching job to fund a $2,000 National Board Certification. Paying that fee and putting in hundreds of hours of work toward the certification is the only way for me to get a raise in Denver without investing even more money to return to school to seek a third degree.

A very obstinate district

Every teacher I know jumps through endless hoops to make ends meet.

We teach summer school. We do home visits. We coach. We spend our own money on advanced degrees to improve our instruction and qualify for mediocre raises.

We do all of this is on top of the 50 or more hours a week we work to plan and teach lessons, grade papers, collect data, counsel students in trauma at lunch and after school, and attend meetings, sports events, professional development, and student recruitment events (because, thanks to the infiltration of charter schools, we have to sell our schools now).

So, when my state said teachers were staging “political theater,” it made me furious.

Denver teachers have been standing up for public schools and their students for 50 years. We didn’t do this for show.

We did this because we knew that, just like in 1969 and 1994, the collective voice of the community could make a difference. Storming the streets, sharing our stories, and gaining national media attention was the only way to change the mind of a very obstinate district.

The district tried for 15 months to play politics, but, after an 18-hour negotiating marathon, they finally accepted the union’s salary schedule. The agreement offers an average 11.7 percent raise for teachers and the opportunity to gain raises with education and certifications, making our salaries as predictable as every other district. 

We teachers, exhausted and hoarse from three days of chanting, walked proudly into our schools that morning knowing that we could tell our students how “political theater” is actually democracy in action—and that collective action brings results.

Karen Vittetoe teaches ELD Seminar, a course for English Language Learners, at Denver South High School. She is a mother of three daughters and a Denver Public Schools graduate. This opinion piece originally was published in The Progressive. It is republished with permission.

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