With loan forgiveness and stipends, Colorado lawmakers hope to lure teachers to rural districts

The downside of living in Campo is that it’s 70 miles to Walmart and 20 miles to the nearest grocery store. The upside is that there’s no traffic.

“I try to tell people, it’s a relaxing drive,” said Nikki Johnson, the superintendent of the 37-student Campo school district in Colorado’s southeasternmost corner, who will be looking for a new secondary math teacher for the fall.

Rural superintendents like Johnson could soon have a more compelling pitch for job candidates who are on the fence: up to $25,000 in student loan forgiveness for teachers who take hard-to-fill positions in remote districts.

The educator loan forgiveness bill, sponsored by state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, is the most generous among Colorado legislation this year that aim to address a teacher shortage that is particularly acute in rural areas and fields like math and special education.

  • Senate Bill 3 provides up to $5,000 a year in loan forgiveness for up to five years for as many as 100 teachers a year who take jobs that are deemed hard-to-fill by either geography or content area. Teachers could use the money for loans from their educator prep programs or from a degree relevant to the subject they teach.
  • Senate Bill 9 increases the amount of a stipend for rural teachers pursuing additional education, while removing a cap on how many teachers can participate.
  • Senate Bill 190 aims to improve teacher preparation programs and the quality of the student teaching experience. The bill creates a certification for “mentor teachers” and provides a $2,000 stipend for mentors working with student teachers.
  • House Bill 1002 creates a mentorship program for principals. More than a fifth of teachers who leave the profession cite dissatisfaction with school leadership as a reason, and turnover among principals is a problem in its own right.

These efforts build on legislation from last year, when lawmakers created a slew of new programs, and supplement initiatives like Troops to Teachers, which helps veterans transition to the classroom, and Teacher Cadets, which recruits high school students to pursue education careers.

All told, state education officials say there are 800 more people in the “pipeline,” preparing for teaching careers, than there were two years ago. But Colorado will need a lot more people to enter teaching — and stay in the classroom — to fill vacancies and replace thousands of educators expected to retire in the coming decade.

Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, sees the loan forgiveness program as an opportunity to have a lasting impact on the problem.

The $25,000 benefit for teachers who stay for five years is the equivalent of the average student loan debt of recent graduates in Colorado and could make it more viable for teachers to take lower-paying jobs and then put down roots in those communities.

“The hope is that you would go to this position and stay there,” Zenzinger said.

From small class sizes to a close-knit community, rural districts offer many advantages, Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of getting [teachers] to consider it, which is where I think the money will help. I hope that somebody who was on the verge will say, ‘yes, I can try this.’ And I think that once they are here, they’ll stay.”

Laynie Anderson, a junior in the education program at University of Colorado Colorado Springs, recently visited southeast Colorado schools and was intrigued by what she saw.

“It was a great environment,” she said. “Teachers know kids from kindergarten all the way until they graduate.”

The possibility of loan forgiveness makes working in a rural district feel more feasible.

“It relieves that financial stress,” Anderson said. “In the back of your mind, you’re always worried about being able to pay them off.”

The other bills this session are also aimed at giving teachers a better start and keeping them in the classroom. State Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and retired teacher, is the sponsor of both the mentor teacher bill and the bill to increase teacher stipends. Todd said she wants to reduce the number of teachers leaving after a few years because they aren’t well prepared or supported enough.

Colby Ricci, a reading teacher at Frisco Elementary in Summit County, is using one of the rural teacher stipends to offset costs as she works toward her national board certification. Even though she’s been teaching for 15 years, the national board process has helped her have more awareness of students’ individual challenges and how to respond effectively.

Ricci said opening these opportunities to more teachers will help with retention.

“Rural teachers feel isolated and not just geographically,” she said. “This helps teachers feel more valued in rural districts.”

Stephanie Hund, the superintendent and elementary principal in the 149-student Walsh district in southeastern Colorado, has had to lean heavily on emergency certification and alternative programs to fill teaching vacancies. Often, qualified applicants withdraw when they realize how remote the district is.

She believes the efforts coming out of the legislature will help, in part because they’ve worked for other fields. One of the town’s most respected doctors arrived through a loan forgiveness program.

If there’s just one other thing the legislature could do to address the teacher shortage, she said, it would be to fully fund Colorado schools. A constitutional provision requires that school funding go up every year by the rate of population growth and inflation, but lawmakers hold money back to pay for other priorities.

“When you take $200,000 out of a district like ours, that is multiple teaching positions, that is money for cost-of-living increases in the salary schedule,” Hund said. “Getting those dollars back would have the biggest impact.”