Human Resources

Colorado’s rural schools need teachers and want lawmakers to help

PHOTO: Kathryn Allison
Chelsea Wendorf, who visited La Veta as part of the rural teacher immersion program, helps in a third grade classroom.

Bree Lesser, superintendent of the 209-student La Veta school district in southern Colorado, has been on the hunt for a high school math teacher for the last 18 months, and had no luck. Now she’s turning to the state legislature for help.

Lawmakers are considering three bills that supporters believe could help schools — especially those in rural areas like La Veta — combat a teacher shortage that is only expected to get worse.

“We can’t get people,” Kevin Shott, superintendent of the 200-student Deer Trail School District in eastern Colorado, told a legislative committee this week.

The problem is not in rural districts alone. Superintendents across the state have raised concern about a dearth of qualified applicants and possible contributing factors such as poor pay and skyrocketing housing costs.

“Some schools are waiting five years for someone to apply for a position,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former teacher who is sponsoring two bills to address the teacher shortage. “It’s horrible what’s happening around Colorado. And I don’t know why that is, but we need to take a look.”

McLachlan’s first bill, House Bill 1003, would commission the state’s education and higher education departments to work with the broader education community to develop a plan to tackle the shortage.

The shortage begins at Colorado’s traditional teacher prep programs, which are seeing fewer students enroll and complete the required training to become a licensed educator. While there has been an uptick in people completing alternative programs, it’s not enough. Compounding the problem: Colorado’s teacher workforce isn’t getting any younger. An estimated 5,500 Colorado teachers will retire this year.

The legislation calls for the departments to pinpoint the greatest needs and obstacles to hiring.

“I assume it’s money, but money isn’t always the fix in education,” McLachlan said, suggesting housing and an increasing workload could be other factors. “So let’s see what else there is.”

The departments also must identify why teachers are leaving the profession — many after just a few years in the classroom — and consider policy solutions to end that trend.

Also up for consideration are the state’s licensing policies — a topic that has vexed lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper for years.

“We need to take off our Democratic or Republican hats and ask what’s best for kids,” McLachlan said. “Let’s give up on some of the things that we know are going wrong.”

The issue of teacher licensure already is on the table at the Capitol.

The House Education Committee is expected to take up the issue Monday when it considers Rep. Jim Wilson’s House Bill 1178.

The Salida Republican’s bill would allow rural school districts to hire unlicensed teachers — with some conditions — if they can’t fill positions with licensed teachers.

“In rural districts, we know the people,” said Wilson, a former school superintendent. “If we have a community member that has a degree, they’re great with people, great with kids (and) they’ve served the community well,” they should be allowed to teach.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, fiercely opposes the bill.

“We believe students, no matter where they live, should have access to qualified teachers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the union’s vice president. “We’re very concerned that if we allow somebody to be in the classroom without a license, that wouldn’t be a good thing for students.”

For the union, a license signals a teacher has not only mastered a content area, but also other skills such as lesson planning, designing tests and classroom management.

The union argues that avenues already exist to hire teachers who have not attended a traditional teacher prep program, including hiring people with adjunct or emergency licenses.

An adjunct license, which lasts three years, allows a person to teach special subject matter such as advanced economics. An emergency license may be granted for one-year to any person who has a bachelor’s degree and is enrolled in but has not completed a teacher prep program.

Advocates for reforming the state’s licensing program argue there are too many bureaucratic hurdles and costs discouraging potential teachers.

The union is supporting a different bill it believes could provide rural schools more options in hiring.

House Bill 1176 would allow rural school districts to hire an unlimited number of retired teachers who would be able to collect their entire pension for the year.

Under current law, retired teachers who re-enter the classroom must forfeit a portion of their pension if they work more than 110 days. In limited cases, the restrictions kick in at 140 days. This law, which applies to everyone enrolled in the state’s pension program, is meant to restrict collecting a paycheck and pension at the same time. The typical working school year is 180 days, which means retired teachers who go back to the classroom could lose up to several months of their pension.

Lesser, the La Veta superintendent, told the House Finance Committee this week that nearly one-third of her staff are teachers who have come out of retirement, but none work full time because of the restrictions.

“It’s been a challenge for us to make sure there are people in the classroom who know what they’re doing,” she said as she described how she rotates substitute teachers and comes up with other workarounds. “This bill does solve problems for us.”

Officials from the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, have raised concerns about that the bill. They believe the bill could add an additional $85 million in unfunded liabilities to the program.

That’s a tiny number compared to the billions that are already unfunded. But the organization noted lawmakers are often critical of the pension program liabilities.

An independent legislative analysis suggests PERA’s liabilities would not increase substantially because fewer individuals would take advantage of the new flexibility.

“It’s a stopgap measure,” said McLauchlan, who is sponsoring House Bill 1176 with Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican. “But for some districts, that’s exactly what they need.”

money matters

Why so negative? Colorado lawmakers seek to rebrand controversial tool that limits spending on schools

A student works at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. (Photo by Nic Garcia, Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers are tired of hearing about the “negative factor.”

So they changed its name — at least in statute.

Going forward, the tool that budget writers will use to spend down the state’s financial obligation to public schools to balance the state budget officially will go by its original name: the “budget stabilization factor.”

The change was made when lawmakers passed the state’s annual school funding bill earlier this month.

The negative factor “has been used as a pejorative,” said state Sen. Kevin Priola, the Henderson Republican who put forth the idea of the name change. “The budget is never perfect. But these are the economic realities we have to deal with.”

Some education funding advocates are rolling their eyes. The term, they say, has become so well known and accepted that any attempt to change it will be difficult.

“You can change the name, but the debt’s the same,” said Lisa Weil, executive director of Great Education Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for more school funding.

The negative factor — oh, sorry, we mean the budget stabilization factor — is just one part of a much larger and complex formula used to determine school funding.

The budget tool was first created in 2009 when state lawmakers were forced to slash the budget after the Great Recession.

School advocates knew they couldn’t escape the cuts the rest of the state was facing. So a team of lawmakers, lobbyists, superintendents and financial officers helped developed the tool.

Here’s how it works: After lawmakers determine how much funding schools should receive based on a formula developed in 1994, they compare that amount to available tax revenue. The difference is that year’s “stabilization factor.”

At the time the tool was created, the group wanted the cuts to be systematic — applied equally across all schools — and transparent. As part of the compromise, the state was required to track how much money it was withholding from schools.

In 2014, funding advocates sued the state, claiming the negative factor was unconstitutional. But the state Supreme Court disagreed.

Since then, Republican lawmakers have become more critical about the provision that requires them to track how much money the state isn’t giving schools. They argue that other state services such as roads, hospitals and parks all share a burden when it comes to balancing the budget.

Lawmakers have withheld about $5.8 billion from schools since the budget balancing tool was created. However, funding has slowly crept up each year, just not as fast as school leaders would hope.

School Politics

Colorado schools were a hot topic at the state Capitol this year. Here’s what lawmakers did.

A teacher reads to her students at the Cole Arts and Science Academy in Denver. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado lawmakers this week are celebrating major education-related policy wins, including finding more money for public schools.

This year’s legislative session, which ended Wednesday, was marked by big compromises on issues that have befuddled policy makers for years: charter school funding, ninth-grade standardized testing and measuring the reading skills of the state’s youngest bilingual students.

With so many thorny debates behind them, lawmakers and Capitol observers are now looking toward other major policy questions they’ve put off for years, including reforming how the state pays for its public schools and making changes to Colorado’s school accountability laws and teacher licensure policies.

“The hope is now that the K-12 community can come together to focus on the big issues,” said Jen Walmer, Colorado state director of Democrats for Education Reform.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look back at the last 120 days:

Lawmakers found more money for schools than anyone could have imagined.

Before the legislative session began, school districts were preparing for the worst. Despite the state’s booming economy, constraints on how much the state could spend meant schools could have gone without much of a funding increase.

State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Republican from Sterling, on the first day of the legislative session.

The forecast became even more dire midway through the session when lawmakers learned the local tax base that generates about a third of all state spending on schools was going to shrink drastically. The worst predictions had the state’s education funding shortfall growing to more than $1 billion.

State officials found a technical workaround, and lawmakers were able to send more money to schools. On average, schools will see about $242 more per student next year.

However, leaders in both parties are aware that the state’s problematic constitutional constraints, tax policies and school funding formula still exist. That’s why a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led a successful effort to create a committee to study and propose changes to the way the state funds it schools.

“We have more work to do. We need to continue with what we’ve done this session: have tough conversations,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.

“How do we make sure that students, regardless of race, income, regardless of whether they have a disability, that they have the opportunity to succeed?” she said. “There is no doubt that we have structural decisions we have to make when it comes to our budget.”

Republican leaders said they’re also anxious to see the committee get to work. But they’re less likely to support an influx of cash to the state’s schools.

“If we’re going to look at real overhauls to the system and funding, we need to look at all the options — not just throwing more money at the system — a system that by many’s accounting is not working well or efficiently,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Canon City Republican.

He and other Republicans are encouraging the committee to look at how other states have focused their funding formulas on students rather than on a school’s size or geographic location, and used funding to expand school choice.

Lawmakers already have one option on the table: A proposal to set a statewide property tax rate, which was born out of the legislature’s budget office and floated early in the session. While there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, it failed to gain traction. Expect to hear a lot more about the idea.

The charter school funding compromise, which some called “historic,” was just one of many longstanding issues that were resolved this year.

The 2017 legislative session will likely be remembered as the most productive in a decade because of several big compromises.

State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, sits alone on the House of Representatives floor as members of her own party filibustered her compromise on charter school funding. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Lawmakers grinned Thursday as they ticked off a long list of accomplishments to reporters, including one that could send more local money to charter schools. In return, charter schools will be required to post on their official websites more tax documents and will no longer receive two specific financial waivers.

The last-minute charter school funding bill — sponsored by a bipartisan group of lawmakers that included state Reps. Brittany Pettersen and Lang Sias and state Sens. Owen Hill and Angela Williams — was the compromise no one saw coming.

“Anything is possible,” Pettersen said after the session.

Lawmakers had wrestled with the question of requiring the state’s school districts to share their locally approved tax increases with charter schools for two years. Despite vocal objections from several school superintendents, the legislature overwhelmingly supported the bill.

Early in the session, lawmakers eager to reduce the number of standardized tests reached another compromise with the governor’s office. High school freshmen will no longer be required to take the controversial PARCC English and math tests. Instead, they’ll take a test that is aligned to the college entrance exam, the SAT.

We kicked the PARCC test out of high schools,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “It’s gone!”

Other deals that were reached include the creation of a diploma seal of biliteracy for students who demonstrate proficiency in two languages and new regulations on how to monitor the reading skills of young English language learners.

Colorado schools will also see a financial boost for the next three years after lawmakers passed an omnibus bill that resolved a debate over a hospital fee that helps pay for the state’s health insurance program.

As part of the biggest compromise of the year, the state will raise taxes on recreational marijuana. Those taxes will send $30 million to rural schools next year and $40 million over two years to the state education fund, a sort of savings account for schools.

Rural schools flexed their muscles and blocked a bill to reform the state’s student suspension rules, but they didn’t get everything they wanted.

Not every piece of bipartisan legislation reached the governor’s desk.

Students at Merino Elementary School work during class.

A bill that aimed to reduce the number of preschool and elementary school students who are suspended was killed by a GOP-controlled committee at the request of rural schools, despite having overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rural school leaders said the bill attempted to create a statewide solution for a Front Range problem. A Chalkbeat analysis of suspension data, which rural superintendents refuted, showed otherwise.

Supporters of the legislation vowed to work with opponents this summer and fall and try again next year.

While rural schools were successful in blocking that mandate, they were dealt a setback when a bill that would have allowed them to remedy a teacher shortage by hiring unlicensed teachers was killed by its sponsors.

State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican, said he couldn’t garner enough support for his effort. At least not this year.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger said, ‘I’ll be back,’” Wilson said.

Even though that bill failed, lawmakers did take steps to curb the state’s teacher shortage.

Stanley Teacher Prep resident Lily Wool works with kindergartner Samori McIntosh at Tollgate Elementary School in Aurora. Wood’s residency program is merging the Boettcher Teacher Residency program. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Prior to the session, education leaders at the Capitol had few if any plans to take on the state’s teacher shortage. But retired teacher and freshman state Rep. Barbara McLachlan pushed to address the issue.

The Durango Democrat partnered with a host of other lawmakers from both parties to sponsor legislation to study the shortage and provide solutions. She also sponsored a bill that would allow rural schools to hire retired teachers without penalizing their pension. Both bills were sent to the governor.

Two other bills, including one to create multiple teacher preparation pilot programs, failed to advance. But with the issue on the legislature’s radar, expect it to come back.

“That’s the most pressing issue, next to funding,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

Despite newfound freedom from Washington, lawmakers didn’t make any bold changes to the state’s school accountability system.

Several lawmakers early in the session seemed eager to take advantage of new flexibility from the federal government.

While the state education department was busy putting together a mandated statewide plan to adopt the new Every Student Succeeds Act, lawmakers were debating how they could update the state’s school accountability laws.

But only two bills making minor tweaks advanced.

A HOPE Online student works during the day at an Aurora learning center. (Photo by Nicholas Garcia, Chalkbeat)

One requires elementary schools that receive low quality ratings to address the needs of students in preschool through third grade.

The second bill requires the state to measure how well high school students are meeting updated graduation requirements. As part of the new requirements, which go into effect in the year 2021, high schools must adopt a list of options students can use to prove they’re prepared for college or a career.

Those options include the SAT exam, which all Colorado juniors are required to take; passing a concurrent enrollment college-level course; passing a Advanced Placement test; or completing a college thesis-like capstone project demonstrating knowledge of a subject.

“This bill is a really clever way to allow school districts to say, ‘This is what we care about, and this how we’re going to do it,’” said Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, a conservative education reform group.

Some of the most anticipated school-accountability bills of the session never materialized.

One would have provided more clarity on what happens to schools that consistently receive low quality ratings from the state.

“This was a big undertaking, and the bill’s sponsors needed more time,” Ragland said.

It’s another issue Capitol-watchers can expect to see return next year.

As Ragland put it, “The lack of clarity at the end of the state’s accountability clock is bad for everyone.”