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Why performance pay is at the heart of Denver’s teacher strike

Denver public school teachers went on strike Monday for the first time in 25 years. Much of the fight comes down to a pay system known that involves a complicated merit and bonus system, and that teachers say is vastly outdated. For more, Amna Nawaz is joined by Madeline Will of Education Week.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The wave of teacher strikes and activism that's been spreading around the country over the past couple of years keeps growing.

    Today's strike in Denver is especially focused on wages and compensation.

    But this labor action touches on some larger issues surrounding education funding and academic performance nationally known.

    Amna Nawaz picks up the story there.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Teachers hit the picket line in Denver today for the first time since 1994. Schools were open today and partially staffed by substitutes. But the walkout and standoff over pay affected some 70,000 students.

    This was the scene in one high school this morning as the strike got under way. Much of the fight comes down to a pay system known as ProComp that involves a complicated merit and bonus system. Teachers say it's vastly outdated for all kinds of reasons.

    Madeline Will of our partner Education Week is here to help fill in the picture.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Madeline Will:

    Thank you for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, this system ProComp, a lot of other place looked to Denver as an example and tried to put in their own systems of linking performance and pay.

    Did it have an impact, and did it lead to other places putting into place the same system?

  • Madeline Will:

    So, it did.

    There's a federal grant program where the idea of performance pay was at the heart of it. Other school districts, even District of Columbia, starting implementing this similar model.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And do we know if it caught on? Is that still a trend that we're seeing and education these days?

  • Madeline Will:

    It's less of a — it's less of a trend these days.

    We have been tracking governors who have included teacher pay proposals in their state of the state addresses. And only one has offered the idea of a merit pay. The rest are just offering across-the-board pay raises. That seems to be more popular.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And like in a lot of these strikes we have seen, pay is at the heart of this one as well.

    Denver teachers, though, when you look overall, are comparatively paid higher than other teachers. So help us understand what the problem is here.

  • Madeline Will:

    So, Denver teachers make about an average of $63,000 a year, which is higher than in other places. But teachers say that the housing prices in Denver have gone up so dramatically over the years that they can't afford to live where they teach, and that they could make more going to a school district in nearby areas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    When we look at some of the other places we have seen strikes, too, a lot of them took place in what we call red states, right, conservative states. Now after Los Angeles, we're seeing — and now in Denver — we're seeing this take place in big cities now and potentially moving into blue states.

    Is that a trend we're likely to see moving forward?

  • Madeline Will:

    Well, it'll be interesting to see.

    I think it's important to note that teachers in Colorado, last spring, they closed schools across the state to protest their state legislature for more education funding. So I think teachers across the country are really looking at their state legislature to see how they're investing money into education.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And one of the other things we're noticing too now in some of these other recent strikes we have seen over the last year or so, Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, can you give us a sense of what they were able to get out of those strikes? Is there a sense that that could mean this is what we will see in Denver potentially?

  • Madeline Will:

    So, for the most part, teachers have been pretty successful with their strikes.

    In all the strikes last year, teachers did get a pay raise. In L.A. last month, teachers got most of what they had asked for. So I think teachers are kind of inspired by what's happening before them.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And some of those places that went on strike before, they could go on strike again? Is this just how negotiations move these days?

  • Madeline Will:

    Yes, it's interesting.

    The West Virginia teachers unions, they said that their members have authorized another statewide labor action. So, we're not sure what exactly that would look like. But if they're not pleased with what the legislature is doing, they could potentially go on strike again.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, day one in Denver. Do we have any idea how long this could go on?

  • Madeline Will:

    Well, the two sides return to the bargaining table tomorrow, and then we will see how that goes.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will be following it, and you will, too.

  • Madeline Will:

    Yes, absolutely.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Madeline Will of Education Week, thanks for being here.

  • Madeline Will:

    Thank you.

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