Denver teachers vote to go on strike for first time in over two decades

Teachers want a better compensation system.

CREDIT: Denver Classroom Teachers Association/Facebook
CREDIT: Denver Classroom Teachers Association/Facebook

Only a few weeks into the new year, teachers in another major U.S. city are getting ready to take to the streets.

Denver Public School teachers voted late Tuesday to authorize a strike, after more than a year of negotiations failed to bring the union and school district together on issues of compensation. The teachers union, Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), said 93 percent of its members approved the strike.

The earliest that teachers could strike is January 28. If teachers go on strike, it would be the first in 25 years and it would affect 71,000 students in the district. 

The issues teachers are striking over are fairly unique to Denver, which uses a merit-based compensation system called “ProComp,” dating back to 2005. It gives one-time incentives for teachers beyond their case salary to work in hard-to-staff positions or teach in schools where students perform well on state tests. But the union said it wants a more traditional approach to salary structure so that pay is more likely to be under teachers’ control and based on expectations they understand.


The union wants a salary structure that considers experience and level of education. Teachers say that more of the school’s operating budget should go to base salary. The district’s final offer was $8 million less than what the union asked for to overhaul the compensation system. The union says the district can reduce administrators’ bonuses and take money out of its reserve to pay for it.

The research on merit pay — a system that bases bonuses on a teacher’s success in improving students’ performance — and how well it improves students’ quality of education, is mixed. Some studies have found no evidence showing that merit pay is positively associated with high academic performance. Others have found that merit pay could be associated with improved student outcomes if teachers are paid at the beginning of the year and pay is then taken from them if they didn’t meet certain expectations.

Denver teachers have said this system makes their paychecks confusing, according to research released in 2016 on the subject. First and second grade teachers, for example, told researchers that although they help prepare students for tests, they lose out on incentives since their students don’t take state tests. Some teachers also said that incentives related to student performance can make teachers resent low-performing students.

School superintendent Susana Cordova said that her office has started to reach out to government workers, some of whom are in desperate financial situations due to a record-setting government shutdown. The district has already gone to events following the shutdown to hire substitutes. Federal workers would need a bachelor’s degree and would have to apply for a license from the Colorado Department of Education to be authorized to teach as a substitute.

Last year, teachers went on weeks-long statewide strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona and there were smaller work stoppages and rallies in Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Los Angeles teachers just ended a week-long strike and achieved many of their goals at the bargaining table, including a 50 percent reduction in standardized testing, ensuring that 30 schools become community schools, and that every school has nurses working five days a week.


The most recent teachers strikes have broken records previously set by the 1968 teacher strikes, when about 107,000 teachers went on four major strikes that year. The 2018 teacher strikes and the L.A. teachers strike amount to 409,000 participating teachers. There were 17 teacher strikes last year that only involved individual district and teacher union disputes. This is a departure from the long-term trend of decreasing union membership and labor strikes. In 2017, there were seven major labor strikes in the United States involving 1,000 or more workers. That made 2017, with only 25,000 striking workers, the second lowest on record behind 2009, at 13,000 workers.