DENVER-- A bill that would punish teachers for participating in a strike is about to change, according to one of its sponsors.
Facing mounting questions about a bill he co-authored, Colorado state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, met with reporters Tuesday morning to talk about an amendment he’s proposing.
Senate Bill 264 would “prohibit public school teachers and teacher organizations from directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating in a strike against any public school employer."
However, when asked about what qualifies as a strike against a public school employer, Gardner attempted to clarify.
“The strike has to be, in essence, against the public school employer because that is the person or entity that employs them,” Gardner said.
He went on to say that even if the teachers are protesting against state lawmakers and not necessarily their school districts or employers, it could still fall under the purview of this bill.
“If they’re doing it because they think the legislature ought to give them more money, nevertheless it’s a strike against their employer. It’s a strike against all of us,” Gardner said. “If the public employees in unions leave the workplace in an organized way, they can say the strike is not against their employer, but that’s who is not receiving their services.”
In its current form, the bill would allow both teachers and the unions that represent them to be punished with fines and up to six months in the county jail. It also allows school districts to fire employees without a hearing.
“A strike is not protected speech,” Gardner said. “It’s not an anti-teacher bill it’s an anti-public employee strike bill. It is a pro-parent bill; it is a pro-student bill.”
An amendment would focus that punishment on the teacher’s union behind the strike.
“It prescribes a penalty now that the failure by the teacher’s union to comply with the injunction – and only the union – would lead to a contempt of court [charge]. The punishment of the organization in the court’s discretion of a fine in the amount of $50 per student enrolled in each public school affected by the strike,” Gardner said.
Gardner said that portion of the bill has gotten so much attention that the purpose of the bill itself is being lost. He said prolonged strikes that disrupt classes are “a serious threat to the states, to children, to communities and to parents."
Gardner pointed out that under current law, it’s unlawful for state employees to strike, and said he modeled his bill after legislation in New York.
“The idea that we would prohibit strikes by public school teachers is not something that is beyond what we have done in Colorado in the past decade,” Gardner said.
Under the amendment, if a teacher’s union is fined, the money would be given to the school district to use to reimburse parents for childcare they paid for on the days the teachers striked.
Gardner said he’s been working on this bill since the beginning of the year after watching teachers in other states strike.
“That’s the kind a disruption to children’s education that we really cannot accept as citizens,” he said.
Gardner also insisted that the bill is not meant to stop a teacher’s right to free speech.
“The notion that it prohibits teachers from speaking or protesting or associating any of their First Amendment protection’s rights is just, first of all, a misreading of the bill,” Gardner said.
Gardner said he does not believe the bill would have applied to last Monday’s rally at the Capitol by teachers from the Englewood School District. He also doesn’t believe it would apply to the rallies planned for the end of the week since the teachers were given the time off by their schools.
He also wanted to make it clear that he supports teachers and believes major reforms are needed for their pay system that focuses on rewarding some of the best teachers.
“I think our classroom teachers overwhelmingly are working very hard no one said they weren’t,” Gardner said.
However, Gardner says he wants this bill to ensure that teachers stay in class and use their votes rather than their ability to strike to voice their opinions.
Denver7 asked Democratic and Republican leadership about the bill during their press briefings on Monday.
“I’m not sure how far it makes it,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham. “I’m not sure it has 100 percent support in the Republican caucus.”
Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran said it should be up to teachers to choose whether or not they should strike.
“It’s their choice,” Duran said.
The bill was introduced last Friday and is currently under consideration in the Colorado General Assembly.