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Chicago in Your Backyard: What the 2012 Teachers' Strike Means for Denver

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It may feel far away, but the teacher’s union strike in Chicago should make Superintendent Boasberg’s and the Denver School Board’s heads snap to attention. Why? Because Chicago represents what happens when a teachers’ union and a school district negotiates a deal that benefits students and tax payers. No, the teachers didn’t get everything they wanted. No, the school district administration didn’t get everything it wanted. But a fairly negotiated agreement, one that holds up for years to come, is a win for students, tax payers, and the long-term health of the community.

This tug and pull is going on right now in Denver. Although the Denver Classroom Teacher’s Association (DCTA) voted in August to approve a three year contract agreement, a problem is brewing under the surface. Denver Public Schools (DPS) administration has found a way to bypass the opportunity for an honest compromise between educators and administrators by using the Innovation Schools Act of 2008 to create schools that are not required to follow negotiated collective bargaining agreements.

As stated on the Colorado Department of Education website, the Innovation Schools Act of 2008 “provides a path for schools and districts to design and implement innovative ideas and practices and to obtain waivers from state and local policies and collective bargaining agreements that challenge their ability to execute their ideas.” The law is written with a stipulation that any waivers should be “approved by a vote of at least 60 percent of the personnel at the affected school who are members of the collective bargaining unit.”

Colorado Education Association, the statewide union which includes DTCA, supported passage of the Innovation Schools Act in 2008, but DCTA filed a lawsuit against DPS in 2011 to enforce the law’s requirements for teacher majority approval and the collective bargaining unit vote. DPS is using the law to create new schools without the required teacher input. “Our Association is not challenging innovation schools but how can new schools with no employees conduct a teacher vote for innovation status?” asked Henry Roman, President of the DCTA.

In March 2012, Denver District Court Judge Ann B. Frick denied a motion by DPS to dismiss the DCTA lawsuit over the approval of a number of new schools it had organized under “innovation” status. Of the 37 schools in Colorado that have applied for “innovation” status, 25 are in the DPS system. DPS set up an “Office of Innovation” to start schools that from concept to practice will not be a part of the DCTA collective bargaining process. The other types of district-run schools created through the “Office of Innovation” that may not meet collective bargaining agreements are contract and performance schools. According to DCTA, the next step in this lawsuit will be decided in court in the spring of 2013.

As a tax payer, looking for the best investment for my tax dollars in education, I consider the push and pull of collective bargaining the best way to get value dollar-for-dollar. The process embodies the checks and balances that have been beneficial in our democracy. Collective bargaining is not a one-way conversation about needs and wants, it is a two-way negotiation. Neither side should hold all the power. The Denver Board of Education, DPS attorneys, and Superintendent Boasberg seem motivated to find a way to institutionally cut out teachers’ voices . As the teachers are the ones in the classroom day-after-day doing the hands-on educating, their collective opinions and expertise should not be excluded from any part of the “creating educational excellence” process. No, as we’ve seen in Chicago, the push and pull of having all stakeholders at the table is not easy, but the results are better for students and tax payers.

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