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Senate Bill 191 has been Colorado’s talk of the town, at least in education circles. Polling has shown public support for the legislation, which would tie teacher tenure to student performance. While teacher opinion has been divided, many of those speaking out against the bill have done so with some extra public aid.

Teachers testifying in support of SB 191 have come to the Capitol on their own time. Not necessarily so for the bill’s teacher opponents.

The Colorado Education Association reported more than 500 teachers showed up at the State Capitol for the union’s April 23 rally against SB 191. And dozens of teachers met personally with state lawmakers and sat in on committee hearings while sporting CEA’s “Not So Fast” stickers.

Teachers certainly have the right to speak out on legislation that will affect their professional lives. However, unlike supporters of the bill, many opposing teachers have taken days off at taxpayer expense. The locally negotiated perk of “association leave” enables unions to designate teachers to skip class to perform union business.

It’s one thing that private organizations in 40 school districts can release teachers from professional responsibilities at no cost of personal days. More troubling, many of the districts have agreed to let taxpayers pick up the tab for the substitute teacher, too.

The Jefferson County Education Association has negotiated 275 annual tax-funded days to perform union business. An official April 15 JCEA email said “we will provide Association Leave days” for members to come lobby against SB 191 at the Capitol. Denver’s teachers union leaders reportedly promoted the same arrangement. DCTA gets 250 leave days per year, but unlike in Jeffco the union must pay back the district for any substitutes used after the first 150.

To be clear, subsidizing classroom leave for teachers to lobby legislators is legal. Such privileges are concessions many district officials make at the bargaining table. Yet a recent survey of Colorado school district policies finds very little accountability for how release time is used.

It would be ideal to outlaw the practice altogether. In lieu of that approach, policy makers could take a couple reasonable measures to protect the public interest.

First, declare which activities union release days can be used for, and which activities at least require the union to pay for a classroom substitute.

A school board may want to clamp down and set clear boundaries of acceptable uses for release days. On the other hand, if a board can justify to citizens letting their tax dollars underwrite political activities, at least it’s out in the open and voters know where they stand. But in tighter budget times like school districts and families face now, it likely would be harder to make the case.

State lawmakers should insist on the adoption and enforcement of policies concerning the use of union release time, leaving most or all of the actual content to local board discretion.

Second, require employees on full-time or daily union leave to document basic descriptions of how they use their time. Make the information transparent and accessible to the public in a timely manner.

Additional agenda items could enhance public oversight of release time privileges. Guarantee citizen access to observe union bargaining negotiations so they can see how policies like union leave are created. Move school board elections in line with regular even-year elections to increase voter participation.

In other words, embrace and empower those who finance and are served by the education system. Leave out the union perks. Or at least demand real accountability.

Ben DeGrow is education policy analyst for the Independence Institute and author of the new report “Colorado Schools and Association Release Time.”

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