union politics

Younger, vocal group of Denver teachers pushing union to be more aggressive, activist

Tommie Shimrock. (Courtesy photo)

A group of Denver teachers, many of them young and social justice-minded, has formed a caucus within the city’s teachers union with the goal of pushing the union to be more progressive — and more aggressive.

One of them — 31-year-old middle school special education teacher Tommie Shimrock — has announced his intention to run for the organization’s top job. Shimrock said he told president Henry Roman in September about his plans. Formal nominations are due later this month and election results will be announced March 24.

“It’s natural for teachers unions to become a little stale and to become the bread-and-butter union,” Shimrock said. “Labor is new and progressive and needs to adjust. ”

Roman, who has been president for the past eight years, said he can’t yet say whether he’ll run for another term. He said he’s focused on negotiating a new master contract and a new agreement for Denver Public Schools’ incentive-based pay system, known as ProComp.

Of the new caucus, he said the union “is a democratic organization and this group formed to do some work. As a democratic organization, they are definitely entitled to their opinions and that’s all good. We believe we’re doing everything we can to continue to strengthen the organization.”

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has approximately 2,940 members, Roman said — which is about half of the teachers in DPS, the state’s largest school district, and more than belonged last year. By comparison, about 60 percent of eligible staff belong to the teachers union in Jefferson County, the state’s second-largest district, according to a union spokesman.

While union caucuses are not necessarily rare, the Jefferson County and Douglas County teachers unions don’t have them, union representatives said. The Aurora teachers union has two — one for special education and one for technology — that union president Amy Nichols said in an e-mail “provide trainings and support for members in those areas.”

At a December kickoff event for the Denver caucus held at a local brewery, several teachers said they were drawn to the caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — because of concerns the union has been losing power for a decade.

During that time, district leaders, along with a school board dominated by non-union-backed members, have carried out a host of reforms such as closing low-performing district-run schools, replicating charter schools and expanding the number of innovation schools, which don’t have to abide by the union contract.

“People are losing interest,” said Shaun Seaholm, a high school social studies teacher who’s been on the job for 16 years and would like to see the union be more confrontational. “There’s more complaining than getting things done.”

It’s time for a change in leadership, said Jen Holtzmann, a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher. “We need to find something that will unify the membership,” she said. “Social justice is something we can all get behind.”

At the brewery, books including The Death and Life of the Great American School System, A is for Activist and How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers were displayed on a countertop alongside sign-up sheets and buttons featuring an apple core, the caucus logo.

Indeed, organizers point to caucuses in cities such as Chicago as an example of what’s possible. In Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators successfully ran candidates for union leadership positions — and those leaders went on to lead a strike in 2012. They claimed the strike was partly over unfair labor practices that also impacted students.

Similarly, several Denver caucus organizers were involved in a union-supported campaign last year to improve conditions for both DPS teachers and students. Called The Schools Denver Students Deserve, it made several demands. Among them: less testing, smaller class sizes and a full-time nurse, full-time social worker and restorative justice program in every school.

That campaign has fizzled, the teachers said. Shimrock described it as “on the back burner.”

The teachers have now turned their attention to building the caucus. One of their first actions was to oppose proposed changes to the union’s bylaws that would have limited who could run for president, vice president, secretary and treasurer to teachers who’d served at least one two-year term on the union’s board of directors and who had non-probationary status, or tenure.

In a December vote, union members rejected the proposal. If they hadn’t, Shimrock, who does have non-probationary status and was elected to the board of directors but hasn’t yet served a full term, would have been excluded from running for president.

Marguerite Finnegan, a third-year high school math teacher who was involved in the campaign and is now a member of the caucus, said the proposed changes are an example of how the union under the current leadership is “siloed and set in its ways.”

“We don’t have a strong union, and that’s the only way we can save public education,” she said.

While she said union leaders have done a good job building goodwill with the district, it seems they’ve been hesitant to press for anything in return: “There’s a perception that the union doesn’t do anything.”

Asked about the union’s direction and stance on social justice issues, current president Roman said, “At this time, we’re bargaining the master agreement and the ProComp agreement and both of them are priorities for us. We’ll see what parts of the overall agenda overlap and where we can extend ourselves a little more. Certainly, we have worked in the past few years with different community organizations, like Together Colorado and Padres Unidos, who work closely with the parents of the community. We’ll continue to do that.”

But Shimrock said the caucus would like to see the union more aggressively push for changes both inside and outside the immediate sphere of public education.

For example, Shimrock mentioned urging DPS to accelerate efforts to recruit more teachers of color in a district where about three-quarters of students are racial minorities and three-quarters of teachers are white. He also mentioned advocating on citywide issues such as affordable housing — the lack of which affects both teachers and students’ families.

“Teachers can be on the forefront of saying, ‘Gentrification is negative. It displaces people. We’re not going to let this happen if it doesn’t happen in a way that benefits kids,’” he said.

The caucus teachers hope that message will inspire more of their colleagues to get involved.

“It’s important for us to give teachers a reason to think that labor is important,” Shimrock said. “…It’s not just to say, ‘Give me a call if your principal is being mean to you.’ That’s still important. Employees need protections. But it’s so much more than that, too.”

expansion plans

Betsy DeVos promises an expansive school choice plan, says opting out would be ‘terrible mistake’ for states

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

In a speech to the advocacy group she previously led, Betsy DeVos hinted that an aggressive plan to expand public funding of private schools through the federal government is on the way.

The U.S. education secretary offered few details about the plan, which she said would be voluntary for states. And with an administration besieged by controversy, a skeptical Congress, and disagreement among even school choice supporters, it faces an uphill battle.

That did not deter DeVos in her speech at the annual American Federation for Children conference in downtown Indianapolis.

“The president is proposing the most ambitious expansion of school choice in our nation’s history,” she said, soon after being greeted by a standing ovation from school choice supporters. “If a state doesn’t want to participate, that would be a terrible mistake on their part. They will be hurting the children and families who can least afford it.”

School choice comes in many forms, but DeVos and the American Federation for Children have long advocated for vouchers and tax credit programs that provide public money to families in order to pay private school tuition. While proponents argue these initiatives provide a lifeline to low-income students, critics say they drain resources from public schools and are ineffective at improving student achievement.

Indeed, DeVos was met with protests from several dozen teachers and public education advocates who criticized her plan before it had even been released. Voucher programs “rob a majority of the students — we’ve got more than 90 percent of the kids in this country sitting in public schools,” Indiana State Teachers Association president Teresa Meredith told Chalkbeat after a rally held before DeVos’s speech.

Even certain school choice supporters are critical of a federal proposal.

“School choice would not only risk being branded as TrumpChoice, but it would be fronted by an unpopular and divisive president,” wrote Rick Hess of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “Democrats who are open to school choice but who despise Trump might wonder if they’re missing something when it comes to school choice.”

One prominent school choice supporter, Indiana Congressman Todd Rokita, has already backed the proposal. Still, few seem to expect it to become law. In 2015, a bid to give states the option to use federal money to fund private school tuition was easily voted down in the Senate.

In her speech, DeVos emphasized that the administration’s proposal would devolve power to the states, thought it’s unclear how she would accomplish this seemingly paradoxical goal through a federal program.

“We shouldn’t view this as a chance to mandate a one-size-fits all school choice proposal,” she said. “We won’t accomplish our goals by creating a new federal bureaucracy or by bribing states with their own taxpayers’ money.”

The last line was perhaps an allusion to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, though she didn’t specify how the Trump administration’s plan would work differently.

Insofar as states will have a choice about school choice, DeVos is clear which direction she thinks they should go.

“Let me be very clear, I firmly believe every state should provide choices and embrace equal opportunity in education,” DeVos said. “But those are decisions states must make — no two states are the same and no two states’ approaches will be the same, and that’s a good thing.”

The secretary offered a bevy of options that epitomize the “open system” of choices that families should have access to: “It shouldn’t matter if learning takes place in a traditional public school, a Catholic school, a charter school, a non-sectarian private school, a Jewish school, a home school, a magnet school, an online school, any customized combination of those schools – or in an educational setting yet to be developed.”

Earlier in the evening, Indiana’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb appeared, and former Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush is scheduled to speak at the conference on Tuesday. Although New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke to the group in previous years, no current elected Democrat appears on this year’s agenda.

DeVos seemed keenly aware of the increasingly partisan breakdown on school choice issues, particularly on school vouchers.

“The oldest school choice program in the country was started by the Democrat,” she said, referring to Milwaukee’s long-running school voucher system. “If you hear nothing else I say tonight, please hear this: education should not be a partisan issue.”

Currently about 450,000 students use a voucher or tax-credit funded scholarship to attend a private school.

Recent research in Indianapolis, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington, D.C. has shown students receiving a voucher saw their test scores drop. There is little research on tax credit programs, partially because many don’t require participating students to take their state test or any test at all.

Private school choice programs have also come under criticism for requiring students with disabilities to waive their rights under IDEA and under-serving those students. Existing voucher programs also allow private schools discriminate against LGBT students.

Proponents point to evidence that public schools improve in response to competition from vouchers, as well as older studies showing that some students attending a private school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

When Chalkbeat asked Secretary DeVos, as she was leaving through a side entrance, what she thought of recent research on school choice, she responded only, “We’re not taking questions.”

feedback wanted

After seven months, recommendations due from Denver task force on African-American equity issues

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Allen Smith of DPS’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team talks about the formation of the task force at a press conference last year.

After a critical report documented concerns about how African-American educators and students in Denver are treated, Denver Public Schools assembled a task force of more than 100 parents, teachers, community members and district staff to brainstorm ways to respond.

The group, which has been meeting for the past seven months, will reveal its recommendations at a public meeting Wednesday at 5 p.m. at Bruce Randolph School, 3955 Steele Street in Denver. Attendees will have a chance to review and react to the recommendations before they are presented to the Denver school board, which is scheduled to happen next month.

The Denver Public Schools African-American Equity Task Force was formed last fall in the wake of a report commissioned by the district. Summarizing conversations with 70 African-American educators, the report noted black teachers felt isolated and unaccepted, and passed-over for promotions. The educators also reported that black students were being left behind academically and disciplined more harshly than their white peers.

District statistics show black students are suspended at higher rates than white students and earn lower average scores on state English and math tests.

“We have institutional racism,” school board president Anne Rowe said at an October press conference about the formation of the task force. She said that while DPS is committed to equity, “we have a lot to do.”

The task force was comprised of several layers, including six working groups that each tackled an area of concern. For example, one group was charged with examining the causes of disproportionate student discipline and coming up with recommendations for alternatives to suspension. Another group looked at how to better recruit and retain black educators.

Allen Smith, associate chief of the district’s Culture, Equity and Leadership Team, who led the efforts, noted Monday that the task force has identified “a number of possible next steps.”

“I know the root causes impacting our community are broad, deep and interconnected,” Smith wrote in a statement.

He added that, “We are excited about building trust by sharing the results of this first phase of work and [getting] feedback on how the African-American community’s experiences will be different once we are successful.”