Research & Commentary: Strike Vouchers Would Keep Denver Students in the Classroom

Published February 8, 2019

A planned strike by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), an affiliate of the National Education Association, the country’s largest union and special interest group, would force close to 100,000 students in Denver Public Schools (DPS) out of their classrooms.

Naturally, students suffer when teachers are out of their classrooms. A working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) shows 10 days of teacher absences over the course of a school year can significantly reduce student achievement in mathematics. Teacher absences “radically reduced … instructional intensity” by creating “discontinuities of instruction [and] the disruption of regular routines and procedures of the classroom,” according to the NBER report. 

Additionally, classroom time lost to teacher strikes diminishes previous educational gains made by students. This is especially true of low-income students. In general, most students lose some of the gains made in mathematics and reading during the previous school year. However, research demonstrates low-income students tend to lose more ground over summer break than their higher-income peers.

More than 67 percent of DPS students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch, according to the district. (As a whole, only 28 percent of Denver 4th graders and 26 percent of Denver 8th graders tested “proficient” in math on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress test, also known as the “Nation’s Report Card. Only 29 percent of 4th graders and 8th graders tested proficient in reading.)

If a teacher walkout occurs, the strike voucher would give any student currently enrolled in a public school in a district where teachers are on strike access to a safe place where learning could continue. Any charter, private, or parochial school in the district with the room to enroll additional students would be given a stipend of $50 per day for each strike-displaced student it takes in. Other non-school institutions, such as libraries, museums, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, and similar private organizations, also could participate and apply for the strike vouchers.

The second stage of protecting students in the event of an extended strike is allowing parents to transition from strike vouchers to education savings accounts (ESA) if the strike extends beyond nine days. The “Student Opportunity Scholarship” (SOS) account would be a mechanism to encourage independent schools to take in as many strike-voucher students as possible. Families could convert temporary strike vouchers into SOS accounts on the tenth school day of a strike. SOS accounts would allow parents to turn their children’s temporary placement at independent schools into actual enrollment at those schools.

[For information on how strike vouchers and SOS accounts would be funded, please consult the Heartland Policy Brief linked here.]

Strikes are a part of the natural order in the collective bargaining process. However, when teachers strike, children always lose. Teachers currently face no significant repercussions for walking out of their classrooms. Under a strike voucher plan, unions would be charged daily for each of the thousands of students it abandoned who takes advantage of the strike voucher, giving them an incentive to reconsider their penchant for walking off the job.

The very existence of the strike voucher and SOS accounts may make teacher strikes less likely. Knowing their students could use strike vouchers to leave their public schools might be enough to make unions such as DCTA think twice about locking students out of their schools in the first place.

The goal of strike vouchers and SOS accounts is to make sure as many children as possible don’t face obstacles to a quality education. All Colorado parents, no matter their income, would be allowed to ensure their children have the opportunity to attend a safe and effective school, free from the continual tug-of-war between school districts and teachers unions, of which they are frequently caught in the middle.

The following documents provide more information about strike vouchers and school choice.

Saving Chicago Students: Strike Vouchers and SOS Accounts
This Heartland Policy Brief examines why teachers are threatening to strike, the history of teacher strikes in Illinois, and the performance and financial challenges faced by students, their parents, and the taxpayers of Illinois. A three-part plan to save Chicago students is presented. It consists of: (a) “strike vouchers”—payments of $50 per student per day to organizations willing to open their doors to students locked out of public schools; (b) “student opportunity scholarship (SOS) accounts”—parent-controlled savings accounts into which public funds raised for schools are deposited and from which disbursements to alternative education providers are allowed; and (c) the expansion of Illinois’ current individual education tax credit program, by raising the maximum amount of the allowable credit and extending eligibility to include corporations and individuals who contribute to scholarship management organizations.  

Education Savings Accounts: The Future of School Choice Has Arrived
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Policy Analyst Tim Benson discusses how universal ESA programs offer the most comprehensive range of educational choices to parents; describes the six ESA programs currently in operation; and reviews possible state-level constitutional challenges to ESA programs.

Protecting Students with Child Safety Accounts
In this Heartland Policy Brief, Vicki Alger, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and research fellow at the Independent Institute and Heartland Policy Analyst Tim Benson detail the prevalence of bullying, harassment, and assault taking place in America’s public schools and the difficulties for parents in moving their child from an unsafe school. Alger and Benson propose a Child Safety Account program, which would allow parents to immediately move their child to a safe school—private, parochial, or pub­lic—as soon as parents feel the school their child is currently attending is too dangerous for their child’s physical or emotion­al health.

A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice (Fourth Edition)
This paper by EdChoice details how a vast body of research shows educational choice programs improve academic outcomes for students and schools, saves taxpayers money, reduces segregation in schools, and improves students’ civic values. This edition brings together a total of 100 empirical studies examining these essential questions in one comprehensive report.

The Public Benefit of Private Schooling: Test Scores Rise When There Is More of It
This Policy Analysis from the Cato Institute examined the effect that increased access to private schooling has on international student test scores in 52 countries around the world, finding that a 1 percentage point increase in the private share of total primary schooling enrollment would lead to moderate increases in student math, reading, and science achievement within nations.

Competition: For the Children
This study from the Texas Public Policy Foundation claims universal school choice results in higher test scores for students remaining in traditional public schools and improved high school graduation rates.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit School Reform News, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Lennie Jarratt, Heartland’s project manager for the Center for Transforming Education, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.