Colorado teachers are preparing to stage walkouts in favor of higher wages and more education funding later this week, but Republican legislation in the state Senate could penalize them for striking — with far-reaching punishments that include fines and jail time.
The measure, SB18-264, would prohibit public school teachers and unions from participating in or organizing a strike. If a strike is planned, the school would be authorized to seek an injunction from the district court. Teachers who violate the injunction would be “punished with fines or up to 6 months in county jail, or both.” The legislation would also allow a public school to fire teachers who do not comply with the injunction.
The bill was introduced last Friday, just as teachers in the southern city of Pueblo, Colorado voted to go on strike, and informed state legislators of their plans to do so. If Colorado’s education and labor agency doesn’t intervene by the first week of May by trying to reach a resolution, teachers could go on strike as early as May 4. If the agency does intervene, however, discussions to broker a deal could last up to 180 days.
Teachers elsewhere in the state are planning walkouts for Thursday and Friday, with some school districts planning to close because of the planned protest. Their actions follow last Monday’s protest at the state Capitol, where hundreds of teachers called for raises and for protection of their retirement benefits.
Bill sponsor Sen. Bob Gardner (R) cited Colorado’s already restrictive strike laws in defending the legislation to KOAA News 5.
“It is already against the law in Colorado for state employees to strike, so this is just an addition to that,” Gardner said. “The idea that it interferes with their First Amendment right is just absurd.”
Pueblo Education Association President Suzanne Ethredge told KOAA News 5 that she was “shocked by the harshness of the language that is in this bill. I think it’s very dangerous for teachers across the country. They would no longer be able to assert their right to strike, their right to speak out if conditions warrant it.”
While the measure has little chance of becoming law, its introduction points to the stark differences between the views of those in power and the rest of the country. A recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that most Americans don’t think teachers make enough money, with half of the respondents saying they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to grant teachers a raise.
Colorado is the latest state that has become a battleground for education funding in recent weeks. Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona have also organized strikes and walkouts for the same reasons. In many of these states, school funding is far below what it was before the Great Recession of 2008.
According to a 2017 report by the National Education Association, Colorado ranks 46th in the country when it comes to average teacher salaries and 49th when it comes to the average salary of other instructional staff.
And as local ABC affiliate Denver7 reported last week, despite the increase in the number of students in Colorado schools over the past two years, schools have not seen increases in education funding. Indeed, Colorado ranks 42nd in the United States with respect to funds spent per student, Denver7 reported, well below the national average by about $2,500.