STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Just weeks after a teacher strike in Los Angeles ended, teachers in Denver begin their own strike today. Denver is home to Colorado's largest school district, so it's a big deal. Colorado Public Radio's Jenny Brundin has been following the story. Good morning.
JENNY BRUNDIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Talk me through what is happening in Denver today. The teachers are definitely not showing up for work?
BRUNDIN: Yeah, that's right. It's hard to know exactly how many, but we know for sure at least - about 2,400 have said that they're not going to show up today. There's a total of about 5,000 teachers, but we're not sure. But schools will be open except for preschool. Three and 4 year olds - they require a higher level of licensing, so those schools are closed. And that impacts about 5,000 children. And that's left many working parents in the lurch. And for older grades, the district has authorized about 1,700 central administration workers to staff the schools. And some high schools, we know, they've instructed all juniors, for example, to meet in the gym to study. So obviously they don't have quite enough people to staff all classes.
INSKEEP: OK, so not a lot of instruction going on but supervision. If your kid needs somewhere to be and you're in Denver, the schools will be open. What is driving the teachers to walk out?
BRUNDIN: Yeah, it's a little bit different from Los Angeles. Here, it's a little bit more wonky. A big sticking point in the negotiations are things called incentives. And back in 2005, Denver Public Schools was the first large urban school district in the nation to adopt an incentive pay system. In fact, voters put this into place. And it lets teachers get several bonuses to encourage them to take things like hard-to-staff positions for math or work in a high-poverty school. But over the years, it became really complicated and unpredictable. Some of the incentives would suddenly disappear or shrink. And teachers say that makes it really hard to plan or even pay rent. In interviews with about 40 teachers I did, not one could tell me exactly how much they made.
BRUNDIN: On top - yeah. On top of that, you have - you know, Denver housing prices have skyrocketed. And I spoke with a teacher Ashley Nance. She can't afford to live and teach here.
INSKEEP: Let's hear her.
ASHLEY NANCE: I have my master's degree in educational psychology, and I'm really struggling to make my loan payments in addition to the rising cost of rent in Denver. I have a roommate at 32 and kind of - I'm always looking for other ways to make cash on the side. What's hard is with the district's pay, you get stuck. Once you have a master's degree, the only way to move forward is with additional courses which, at this point, I simply cannot afford to take.
INSKEEP: Oh, so this incentive system, which sounds like getting extra money, has actually trapped people and, in some cases, left them feeling like they have less.
BRUNDIN: Exactly, Steve. So if she wanted to move to another school that's not as challenging, she basically can't afford to live. And the other sticking point is they want - teachers here want to have a salary schedule that looks like other districts - that they can advance in pay like other districts do.
INSKEEP: Is it legal for teachers to go on strike in Colorado? 'Cause I don't believe it is everywhere.
BRUNDIN: It is legal, yes, including public teachers - all public employees can strike. The state labor board has said that if things get too out of control or if it's against the public interest, they will step in and stop this and try to help come to a resolution.
INSKEEP: OK, Jenny Brundin is covering the story for Colorado Public Radio and for us as a teacher strike begins in Denver today. Jenny, thanks so much.
BRUNDIN: Thank you.
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