Denver Teachers Strike

An instructor carries a placard as she marches to Denver Public Schools headquarters to deliver Valentine Day cards Feb. 13, 2019, in Denver.

The Colorado Education Association said it's eager to work with Colorado lawmakers, as the four-month General Assembly commenced this week.

The teacher's union has a specific wish list, starting with paychecks.

“Tackling low educator compensation head-on is the boldest move the legislature can make in 2020 to give our students the schools they deserve," Amie Baca-Oehler, president of the teachers union and a high school counselor, said in a statement. "We will have a strong presence at the Capitol throughout the session because educators across Colorado deserve a livable wage, so that they can afford to work and live in the communities they serve.”

Teacher pay is set by local school districts, but annually, the state's share of school funding attracts intense debate and sometimes protests, nonetheless.

RELATED: LEGISLATURE 2020 | GOP lawmakers roll out ambitious education agenda for 2020 session

Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert of Parker made teacher pay part of his opening day speech to the chamber.

"Republicans share the desire to pay teachers more, especially those teachers who excel at teaching," he said. "Putting more toward buying down of the budget stabilization factor would allow local school districts to increase teacher salaries within their respective jurisdictions. We didn’t tell those local school boards how to cut their budgets during the Great Recession and we ought to avoid telling them how to increase their budgets during a booming economy."

House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock also made education funding a key part of his opening day address, saying it was an area of a prosperous state that's not prospering at all, even though the state spends almost 37% of its operating budget on public education last year.

He cited low standardized test scores.

"That’s not right," Neville said in his floor speech. "Our problem isn’t a lack of money. We’re spending more than ever.

"It’s a lack of imagination when it comes to offering parents and students more choice in education; when it comes to setting the right priorities, when it comes to putting our students first. We need to make it right."

Republicans presented 17 education bills Wednesday, including a proposal by state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, who will try again this year to finance $50 million in bonuses that would go to 47% of Colorado educators deemed highly effective by a state evaluation system. Republican state Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson is working with Democratic state Rep. Bri Buentello of Pueblo on a bill to provide stipends to highly effective teachers in low-performing schools.

School advocates contend lawmakers are shirking on a debt to education. Since 2009, when the recession gripped the state, lawmakers have used the so-called budget stabilization factor to match spending on schools, based on a formula developed in 1994, and the available tax revenue. School funding proponents equate the factor to debt.

The Colorado Education Association said that amounts to $572 million in the current school year and $8.1 billion for K-12 education since 2009.

Baca-Oehlert said CEA also wants lawmakers to end unfunded and underfunded mandates and new grant or pilot programs that drain resources.

“Our lawmakers need to demonstrate their commitment to public education by directing meaningful resources to our schools and educators who help students thrive,” she said. “The Legislature has failed to fund our schools, allowing funding cuts started during the Great Recession to continue many years after Colorado’s remarkable economic recovery.

"Every legislator should be motivated to change a system in which our great collective success is not reaching and benefiting our own children, and finally commit to a plan to eliminate K-12 education cuts in three years.”

Also on the CEA wish list for this session:

  • Relieve the workload on educators, including reducing large class sizes.
  • Provide more mental health support for educators and students.
  • "Minimize the influence of private corporations in public schools."
  • Ensure evaluations to accurately reflect educator's jobs.
  • "Prioritize all working families and union values."

“If legislators listen to the powerful voice of 38,000 CEA members over the next few months, they will arrive at an obvious answer: improving educator compensation now is the greatest achievement the Legislature can make in 2020 to ensure the long-term success of our state," Baca-Oehlert said.

The Legislature has stepped up funding for education in each of the last few years, however.

Last year Gov. Jared Polis made free full-day kindergarten a reality. Lawmakers initially provided about $175 million last year.

Legislative analysts said 23,802 more students enrolled in kindergarten this school year, compared to last year, about 1,400 more students than legislators assumed when they passed the program last year.

That puts the state's cost the state about $198 million more for education, and Polis hopes to expand the program this year.

House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, cited investing more in education as part of "one of the most historic, productive sessions in our state’s history" in 2019 in her opening day address Wednesday.

"Despite our state’s unique budget constraints, we managed to make significant investments in our future," Becker said. "We paid down the budget stabilization factor by $100 million, boosting investment in our classrooms. We passed a budget that included $20 million for rural schools and $22 million for special education programs.

"And just in case you’ve never heard Gov. Polis speak, I’ll have you know we also expanded full-day kindergarten to every school district in our state.

Senate Democrat Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, made a brief reference to education in his address Wednesday when he referenced a need for "quality teachers" and job training among the goals for the state this session.

"Because the American Dream shouldn’t require a VIP ticket," he said. "But rather, only be limited by a person’s willingness to work hard and persist in hope."

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