New Colorado teachers union chief: Spring walkouts raised public awareness of school needs

Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert. (Courtesy of CEA)

Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert. (Courtesy of CEA)

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By Erica MeltzerChalkbeat 

Amie Baca-Oehlert, a school counselor from the Adams 12 district north of Denver, recently took the helm of the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association. She’s served as the vice president of the state’s largest teachers union since 2012, working closely with recent president Kerrie Dallman. In that time, union-backed candidates have gained ground on school boards across the Front Range, while at the statehouse, the union fended off efforts to weaken licensure and partnered with conservatives to roll back standardized tests. But the last session ended with a political defeat: Changes to the public employee pension system significantly raised the retirement age for teachers.

Baca-Oehlert was elected as president in April, on the heels of two days of teacher protests at the Capitol that shut down schools across the state. She takes over as the union faces an uncertain political environment. Teacher protests generated renewed engagement, but the union’s preferred gubernatorial candidate lost the Democratic primary. There’s a competitive governor’s race, control of the state Senate is also up for grabs, and a third attempt to raise taxes for education could appear on the ballot. What happens in November could open up new possibilities to advance the union’s agenda or shut doors.

Baca-Oehlert recently sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her top priorities, whether she has any regrets about wading into the primary, and what the lasting impact of April’s teacher walkouts might be.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been in a leadership position with CEA since 2012. As you take over as president, what are the biggest challenges? What are your top priorities?

School funding certainly is top of mind and something we need to continue to work toward, to make sure that every child regardless of where they live here in Colorado has access to a quality public education.

And teacher voice, ensuring that the professionals … are honored and respected and listened to. That’s something I really value as a leader. They are the ones closest to the students doing the work.

When (immediate past president) Kerrie Dallman took over, she said in an interview that the union couldn’t just be the voice of no, that the union had to present a positive vision of reform. Do you still feel like that’s important politically or do you feel like the political environment has changed?

There is broader understanding that our schools aren’t broken or something that needs to be fixed, but we aren’t necessarily doing right by our schools or by our students, and that gets back to funding. When you look back at the last 10 years of underfunding our schools and what that has done, what that has meant to schools and communities, there is broader understanding that we need to support our schools. We need to resource our schools. We need to give the educators and teachers working with students the tools and resources they need to serve students’ needs, whether that be more mental health supports, things for school safety, down to supplies. We put out a report that teachers are spending on average $656 a year on supplies for their students.

There’s a good likelihood there will be a tax increase to fund education on the ballot in November. We’ve been here before in Colorado. What can you do to have a different outcome this time?

It’s doing that talking to people, sharing our stories. I think one of the most powerful things from the April Days of Action was people were able to tell their stories. It shifted the conversation. People were able to really see and understand what’s happening in our public schools and how educators in Colorado are treated. They definitely have to have bachelor’s degrees. Many of them have master’s degrees, yet they’re working two and three jobs, many of their own children are on free- and reduced-[price] lunch. We were able to help people understand that we have one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, yet we’re treating our educators and our students in this manner. People were able to share those stories and help people understand we can and should do better by the students of Colorado.

You waded into the Democratic primary, not only endorsing Cary Kennedy but also running pretty negative ads against Mike Johnston and Jared Polis. Polis is now the nominee. Do you have any regrets about that?

We didn’t run those ads, that’s an independent expenditure committee that ran those ads. But I don’t regret that we as an organization went into the primary. We wanted to ensure there was a candidate who was a champion for students and public education and that education was going to be something that mattered in this election for governor. I certainly believe there was a lot of talk about education and education became an issue in the governor’s race. I believe it still will be in the general election. We have an internal process for how we recommend candidates, and that process will be going on for the general election.

Just for the record, you were a significant donor to the independent expenditure committee that ran those ads.

Yes, we did contribute.

Do you have any concerns that if there is a Polis administration, he won’t be as receptive to the perspective that you all bring?

No. The union is 35,000 educators across Colorado who are Colorado citizens. I would hope that anyone sitting in the governor’s office would understand the value and the need to listen to educators, to hear their voices and have educators at the table as partners.

Is that true also if Walker Stapleton is the next governor? As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated changes to the Public Employees Retirement Association pension system that were strongly opposed by the teachers union. There’s a challenging history there. What do you see as your job if there’s a Republican in the governor’s office?

My job is to come to the table. No matter if it’s a Democrat or a Republican, it’s about coming to the table to do what’s best for students and public education. My role as president of the CEA would be to share our issues, share our concerns, and hopefully work together to do what’s right.

In the conversation about school funding, many conservatives ask what kind of outcomes we’ll get if we invest more in schools. They also raise the issue of teacher effectiveness and being really rigorous about having a highly effective teacher in every classroom. What’s your answer to that? What improvements can we expect if we invest more?

What we can expect is we can have a system that’s supporting students, supporting their needs, and that in turn leads to greater student success. We’ve seen what the underfunding of our schools has done. We have more students who have significant mental health needs. We have more students who are entering into school without enough food, without school supplies, who sometimes don’t even have shoes. When we can meet students needs, we know it leads to greater student success.

We’ve not been afraid of teacher accountability or teacher evaluation. It’s been an unfunded mandate, and districts have not been able to implement that system well.

In addition to more resources, is there anything you would support to improve student achievement?

Beyond resources? There are certainly things we could look at in terms of teacher recruitment and teacher retention and how we’re providing professional development. And that’s something we’ve been very heavily involved in with our COpilot program, online, teacher-provided, vetted, professional development that meets an individual teachers needs.

I think we also need to look really closely at how we’re supporting educators in those first one to three years. If you look at the medical field, you don’t get a six-week training and then you’re off on your own. You get several years of side-by-side. We could really look at how we support that teacher in their first one to three years and doing more collaboration and more co-teaching before you are off on your own.

One of the other things we need to look at is the whole role of social-emotional needs of students. My background is as a school counselor so I have a lot of experience in that work and knowledge. I definitely believe a child cannot learn if they are not safe socially and emotionally. That has gone out of our curriculum in a lot of places, and we need to look at what we can do in our system so we’re helping the whole child and not just that academic side.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was recently quoted as saying teachers unions are becoming more political, not less. Do you agree with that?

We just need to maintain what we’ve been doing. I agree that we certainly don’t need to become less political. The nature of public education is political. We elect school board members who make decisions about what happens in our classrooms. We elect legislators who make decisions. It is a political job. In that sense, you have to engage in that work to have some sense of control over what’s happening to you as a professional. Again, we are seeing people really come to realize that. We saw that with the April Days of Action. People are realizing, “I have a voice. We have a process. We live in a democratic country and we have an ability and a responsibility to exercise that voice and come together.” People are not going to sit by and just watch things happen to them. People are going to exercise their voice and come together.

What did you gain by the teacher walkouts in April and how will we see that reverberate going forward?

The biggest gain was the public awareness that came out of that. I think a lot of people were just not aware of what the last 10 years of underfunding our schools has meant, what the impact on individual educators and students has been.

It was very validating for many of our members who often feel like being a teacher is a very difficult job. There are a lot of expectations on you, and sometimes you don’t hear the thankfulness or the gratitude people have. Just the honks and the support and the people saying, “we stand with you,” that gave them a boost. It kind of reinvigorated them to say, “I have a voice, and I can use my voice to make a difference for myself and my profession and my students.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.