DENVER – As Colorado teachers prepare to walk out on Thursday and Friday to call for higher wages and increased school funding, some state lawmakers are working to make sure any plans to strike don’t go unpunished by introducing a bill in the Senate that could put teachers in jail for speaking out.
The bill, SB18-264, would prohibit public school teacher strikes by authorizing school districts to seek an injunction from district court. A failure to comply with the injunction would “constitute contempt of court” and teachers could face not only fines but up to six months in county jail, the bill language reads.
The bill also directs school districts to fire teachers on the spot without a proper hearing if they’re found in contempt of court and also bans public school teachers from getting paid “for any day which the public school teacher participates in a strike.”
The bill, which was introduced this past Friday, is sponsored by State Rep. Paul Lundeen and Sen. Bob Gardner, both Republicans.
Mike Johnston, a Democrat eyeing the gubernatorial seat in 2018, has spoken out against the bill, calling it a “tactic designed to distract from the challenges facing Colorado’s education system rather than solving them.”
“Teachers across the country, from West Virginia and Oklahoma to Arizona and here in Colorado, are speaking up for themselves and their students. We need to listen to teachers now more than ever. This legislation attempts to silence their voices rather than working to address their concerns. As Governor, I will make sure that teachers are heard, not thrown in jail for exercising their rights,” Johnston said in a statement sent to Denver7.
A handful of school districts have already told parents there will be no classes on April 27 due to the planned “Day of Action.”
Teachers from the Poudre School District, Cherry Creek Schools, Adams 12 Five Star, Denver Public Schools and St. Vrain Valley will walk out that day. Teachers from other districts are expected to join them.
The Colorado Education Association estimates that Colorado teachers spend $656 of their own money for school supplies for students each year, and the average teacher salary here ranked 31st among U.S. states and Washington, D.C. in 2017, according to the National Education Association.
The state currently is underfunding schools by more than $800 million each year, and the teacher shortage and education budget shortage are hitting rural schools hardest. There is some additional money pledge toward paying down that figure in the budget, but Democrats have argued it’s not enough.
The pension program, called PERA in Colorado, has massive amounts of debt, though some moves made by the General Assembly this week aim to cut most of that debt over the next few decades and restore some of the asks made by teachers. Changes to the measure have to be agreed upon by both chambers.
Colorado’s TABOR law and the Gallagher Amendment also have huge says in how school funding is determined each year, and the educators are hoping for changes to those as well that can help shore-up school funding.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Colorado ranked 46st in the nation in terms of teachers’ pay; this was based on erroneous numbers provided by the National Education Association. According to data from the 2016-17 school year, Colorado ranks 31st in the United States.