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Insights: Legislature gets generous, but teachers want more

May 12, 2018 Updated: May 12, 2018 at 12:56 pm
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Colorado teachers rally outside the state Capitol to demand more funding for schools and oppose changes to the state's pension system in Denver, Monday, April 16, 2018. They later headed inside to lobby lawmakers in an event organized by the Colorado Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union. (AP Photo/Colleen Slevin)

When the purse is open, that's the time to ask - or demand - a larger share. And that's what public school teachers have been doing for weeks - well, years - at the Colorado Capitol.

But the protests have come at a curious time. The Legislature's past two sessions have been very good for K-12 education in Colorado. But that salve has done little to soothe the burn that teachers' unions and their politician allies on the left have felt for years.

The causes are many. The Taxpayer's Bill of Rights makes it impossible for lawmakers to raise taxes for schools. Pot taxes haven't been nearly the boon for schools they were supposed to be. Local taxes are an uphill fight with voters, and statewide ballot initiatives have been even tougher to pass.

On top of all that, a legion of largely partisan cynics don't think teachers have it as bad, compared to the rest of the workforce, as the union-driven marches would indicate.

So teachers left their classrooms and dressed in red - "for ed" - to march on the Capitol for three days in successive weeks late in the session. It's not clear that they achieved more than people tooting their car horns as they drove by.

It was odd timing for the marches, however, with next year's state budget written and the annual School Finance Act in the books with an extra $150 million beyond normal growth this year.

The protests could have done more good at the start of the session in January than in late April. But it can be very cold in Colorado in January.

"I know you deserve to get a fair pay," Gov. John Hickenlooper told a boisterous crowd at Denver's Civic Center park under the noontime sun. "You should be able to afford to live in the communities where you teach."

He said that during the seven years he's been governor, the state has increased school funding by $1.8 billion. In the last two years, the state has increased K-12 funding by 9 percent.

"Now, I know that's not enough," Hick said as boos rippled through the crowd of thousands.

He resorted to pandering to stem the growing hostility.

"Now, I realize that we will never be able to maintain a strong economy without having a great education system," he said, sounding like he was setting up a campaign applause line. "And I know that having a great education system requires great teachers, and great teachers deserve to get paid."

Hickenlooper and the Democrats want to take at least $225 million a year out of the state budget to put into teacher pensions.

A chant started from somewhere behind me in the park: "We want more than words. We want more than words."

Rare frustration flashed across the governor's face about 30 feet from where I was standing. His brow furrowed.

"Well, $225 million, that's 3 percent, that is more than words," he said, citing the percentage teachers would have been asked to put in from their paychecks, if not for the Democrats' proposal. "That's real money."

As Hickenlooper wrapped up his 3½-minute speech, another chant started: "We want more. We want more."

Then they might do well to march at their next local school board meeting, because that's where salaries are set, not at the statehouse.

"The rallies ... further solidified unity around common and shared values by educators concerning a lack of sufficient resources, and they served to heighten the public dialogue around these issues we all feel are important to our profession," Kerrie Dallman, president of the state teachers' union, the Colorado Education Association, said in a statement.

This November, voters statewide could be asked to approve the Great Schools Thriving Communities package of tax hikes to raise about $1.8 billion for schools. The proposal would raises taxes on corporations and on individuals who earn more than $150,000 a year. Homeowners would pay about $28 more for each $100,000 of value in their homes, according to an analysis by Chalkbeat Colorado.

The last time education advocates tried to raise taxes for schools, Amendment 66, five years ago, almost 65 percent of voters said no.

Schools have a mixed record with voters in their communities, too. Tax measures for schools were on the ballot in more than 40 local communities in 2016, and about half of them passed, according to Chalkbeat Colorado.

Working-class voters should sympathize with the pay levels and economic stresses on educators. But at an equal-or-less pay level, few sympathizers get time off for summer, spring break, Thanksgiving and Christmas, plus personal days they can use to rally at the Capitol for more benefits.

The only fight left this session for teachers to march over was their pensions, and whether workers or retirees - instead of taxpayers - would pick up the tab to fill in a $32 billion shortfall in the public-pension system that was caused, at least in large part, by overly generous benefits.

Count your blessings, teach. About half of the rest of America can't count on the luxury of retirement money at all. Only 23 percent of private employees have a pension, and only 40 percent of U.S. workers are participating in any kind of retirement savings plan, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' National Compensation Survey for 2017.

The $80 a month I'm supposed to get from The Denver Post, where I worked for 14 years, has been frozen for almost a decade, but even that paltry amount might never come to pass, if the hedge fund that owns my former employer doesn't repay the $248 million it "borrowed" from the pension.

Retirement? I'll have to use a sick day for my own funeral.

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