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Peter Greene, Forbes:

Now that Los Angeles teachers have settled their contract, we can turn our attention to the coming strike in Denver, Colorado. While the dispute is primarily about wages, like the L.A. strike, this is about more than just the money. Denver’s labor unrest occurs against the backdrop of more than a decade of education reform fiddling.

Back in 2005, the district hired Michael Bennet, who had no background in education, but was the mayor’s chief of staff with a background in turning around failing companies for an investment firm. Bennet brought in other outsiders to form a community group (A+ Denver) along with some other education philanthropists to “pressure” the district. The preferred model was a portfolio model. Think of this type of model as a forced merger between public and charter schools, with the resulting entity run by charter philosophy.

Since 2005, Denver has closed 48 schools and opened 70; most of the new schools are charter schools. Denver under portfolios is a slow-motion model of turning a public school system private, a New Orleans without a Katrina to clean out the public system in one fell swoop.

To keep the ed reform model in place requires a Denver school board that is reform friendly, and so the politics and money surrounding Denver school board races have been unusually tempestuous. By 2013, big money was a regular feature of the elections, with the 2015 race drawing hundreds of thousands of out-of-state contributions, most funneled through Democrats for Education Reform and their activist arm, Education Reform Now Action (ERNA is not required to identify its contributors).

Given its history, Denver has long been seen as a great place for reform advocates to try out some of their favorite ideas. One has become a central issue in current negotiations–incentive pay. Denver teachers work under a system called ProComp, which offers incentives for a variety of reasons, from staffing a school that is struggling to working at a school that achieved high test scores. It looks pretty on paper, but in practice critics say it creates frustration and uncertainty about a teacher’s pay, links that pay to factors a teacher has little control over (e.g. test scores), has led to considerable teacher turnover in the district, and, most notably, has done nothing to close Denver’s large achievement gap. Meanwhile, Denver teachers, like many in Colorado, are working two jobs to get by.

Chalkbeat revealed that the district has 1 administrator for every 7.5 teachers–197 total administrators. That’s more than other districts in the state, but not entirely surprising. Charter schools in particular tend to be top-heavy, with study after study after study showing that they spend far more on administrative costs than public school districts do.

On top of that, an information request by a Denver parent uncovered a payout of $3.2 million in bonuses to Denver administrators. Average administrator base pay is over $100,000, with the district spending $20 million total. About a half million of the bonus money goes to administrators with no school or student responsibilities.

I’ve been through two teacher strikes in my career, and one of the hardest things about them is that those who don’t respect teachers will take their masks off and let you know just how little they think of the profession and the people in it. School administration may demonstrate how much they value teachers as part of the district. or they may demonstrate their belief that teachers are hirelings who should sit down, shut up, and do as they’re told. It’s always important to remember that when the contract is finally settled, everyone has to go back to work together. It’s difficult to sell, for instance, “Hey, I know we threatened to have you thrown out of the country, but we really value you and look forward to working together.”

Denver’s schools are struggling with the detritus of too many years of too much corporate reform style leadership. Coming up with a way to provide teachers with a decent, stable wage will not sweep away all of that, but it would certainly be a good step forward. Here’s hoping the leaders in Denver can find their way.

Paul Ciano

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