State struggles with teacher license backlog

A backlog of state educator license applications means teachers are waiting up to five months for the credentials they need to legally hold a classroom job in Colorado.

Durango High School teacher Tammy Schreiner was temporarily relieved of classroom duty in January because of delays in receiving her educator license renewal
Durango teacher Tammy Schreiner was temporarily relieved of duty because of license renewal delays.

And the busy season for the Colorado Department of Education’s Licensing Unit is about to hit, as thousands of new teachers graduate from college this spring and seek their initial licenses to take their places in their first classrooms come fall.

It’s a situation that has been building for some time, but it has become acute in the past two years.

The reasons for the backlog, according to state officials – a surge in the number of people applying for teacher licenses combined with an antiquated application approval system, and legislation that made the CDE responsible for additional screening duties but provided no extra funding to hire the people to do the work.

“This is most impactful for those requesting an initial license or those applying for the first time in Colorado,” said Jami Goetz, executive director of the Office of Professional Services and Educator Licensing for CDE. “They can’t start teaching – or shouldn’t – until they have their license in hand.

“If they’re renewing, then as long as they’ve submitted their renewal application before the old one expires, their license is considered good. They don’t have to be removed from the classroom. But the new teachers are our biggest concern.”

That’s small comfort to veteran Durango High School teacher Tammy Schreiner, who was suspended from her job for three days in January because her license lapsed and the paperwork she had submitted in November hadn’t yet worked its way through the system.

Learn more
  • Read a February 2011 analysis prepared for the State Board of Education on the backlog and the associated increase in licensing fees.

She did receive a renewal of her certification – teachers must be both licensed and certified in a specialty area – but she was flummoxed that the more critical license renewal didn’t happen.

After the online application system proved balky and her emails and faxes to the CDE went unreturned, Schreiner finally drove to Denver to deal with the snafu in person. With the help of a Colorado Education Association staffer familiar with the licensing backlog, she was able to negotiate the barriers and left Denver with her license in hand.

But she’s still steamed.

“I understand the necessity for certification,” she said. “I understand that it is my responsibility to get all the pertinent information to CDE.

“I do not understand why I was never allowed to communicate with CDE directly. I do not understand why CDE never contacted me concerning any of the questions I had, which would have avoided the situation. I do not know why I had to drive 400 miles to rectify the situation. I do not know why my government has not addressed CDE’s need for more staff and funding.”

Caught in licensing limbo

Schreiner’s not the only teacher at her school to be caught in licensing limbo.

“Nothing will solve the problem until we have sufficient people and get our new online application system completely up and running.”
— Jami Goetz, CDE

“One of the young teachers we want to retain must be kept on sub pay – probably for the rest of the year – because she is waiting for her certification,” she said.

“The sub who took over my position lost two potential jobs because he was waiting on certification. I have deduced that if young degreed teachers graduate in May, they will not be able to be employed for over a year because all the districts hire in the summer. Then, they can’t seek employment as a substitute until at least December or January.”

Goetz is sympathetic. She hears every day from teachers, student teachers and school districts are panicked about the situation. Her office has responded by throwing staff at the most urgent areas, and has finally gotten around to reviewing those applications that came in in January.

But by focusing concentration on one area – the office processes more than 22 different types of educator licenses – it means backups will develop elsewhere. In total, more than 38,000 licenses will be processed this year, up from 34,000 in 2007.

“Nothing will solve the problem until we have sufficient people and get our new online application system completely up and running,” she said.

Law changes led to backlog

Goetz traces the beginnings of the backlog to 2003, when the legislature passed a bill, HB03-1114, that required all school personnel to submit fingerprints to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and undergo a comprehensive background check. CDE was given responsibility for reviewing this information and alerting school officials if any felons were found.

But anything turned up in the CBI investigation – from serious felonies to minor scrapes with the law – gets forwarded to Goetz’ office. And each one – about 2,000 a year – must be investigated. Yet CDE was given funding only for an additional part-time staffer working about 10 hours a week.

“There are over 50,000 licensed teachers in Colorado, and we process about 36,000 to 38,000 licenses every year,” she said. “Of those, only about 2,000 require any type of investigative background check.

“Most are to clear minor things people did when they were young and stupid. By and large, people who try to become teachers are really very good people. But because of the way the law is written, we need to check.”

In addition, a law passed in 2008, HB08-1344, required CDE to provide criminal history information on education employees within 10 business days of receiving an inquiry from a school district or charter school.

Goetz says there are about 253,000 names in the state’s educator licensing database. The office gets a daily report from law enforcement anytime one of those 253,000 people has an encounter with police.

“It could be as simple as a barking dog, but we get those on a daily basis,” she said. “And because we don’t know if those persons are working in this state or not, we’re obligated to send all that information out to every school district and charter school in the state.”

CDE initially asked for three more full-time staff members to keep track of the extra paperwork, but those extra positions weren’t funded in the legislation. The department did get supplemental funding from the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee in 2009, but the request for more money was denied in 2010.

New online system should help

As the backlog of applications began to grow in 2008, CDE moved to streamline things and switch to an online application process. But they couldn’t afford to build a new online application system from scratch so it’s being added on top of the existing system. As of the end of last year, CDE had spent nearly $300,000 to get the system up and running, but it’s going online in chunks, not all at once.

“We plan to have it running for all application types by the first of July,” Goetz said. “But to be really fully functional – all the bells and whistles to make it clean and easy to use – that will require some customization, which will take another six months after that.”

Beyond the long-anticipated online application system, there are other potential fixes to the problem in the works.

In February, CDE increased the fees for processing license applications from $60 to $80. The extra funds may eventually help the department hire more staff to whittle down the license backlog.

Also, a bill, HB 1201, was introduced this year to streamline the teacher licensure process. It would do three things:

  • It would relieve the department of the necessity of hand-checking to see if every applicant for license renewal actually completed the coursework they claimed to have completed. Instead, the CDE would accept affidavits from applicants saying they had.
  • It would eliminate checking to make sure teachers applying for license renewal are in the country legally.
  • It would give the CDE the continuous authority to spend whatever extra money is generated by the higher license fees. CDE currently can spend that money only with the express approval of the legislature.

“The notion of continuous spending authority is not something the legislature likes because it does take away some of their authority,” said Anne Barkis, CDE’s legislative liaison. “The original bill was amended to provide continuous spending authority for just three years, and the department must report on those funds to the General Assembly, and any new hires can’t be FTEs (full-time employees), but only contract employees.”

The amended bill passed the House of Representatives earlier this month, and now heads to the Senate.

The bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Millie Hamner, knows something about educator license backlogs. Before being appointed to the House last December, she was the superintendent of Summit County schools.

“Millie Hamner came to us and said this backlog was a problem and that she wanted to find a bill to address it,” Barkis said.

Coming weeks will bring fresh challenges

In the meantime, Goetz’ staff is girding for the expected onslaught of 5,000 to 7,000 new graduates’ license applications that will begin arriving in the next few weeks, along with the summertime surge in veteran teacher license renewal applications.

“They told me to expect to wait 20 weeks to get my license … but I can’t walk into a classroom in the fall without that …”
— Melissa Pomponio, teacher

Melissa Pomponio wrapped up her student teaching in Bill Reed Middle School in Loveland in February. While she would like to be able to work as a substitute teacher through the end of the school year, that’s not possible because she doesn’t yet have her license.

She’s had transcripts sent to CDE and she’s filled out all the paperwork needed for her license application, but she acknowledged that she’s worried.

“They told me to expect to wait 20 weeks to get my license, which is ridiculous,” she said.

When she called to check to make sure all the paperwork was in order, a recording told her the wait time to talk to someone would be in excess of an hour.

“I hung up and said ‘Fine, I’ll just pray that it’s OK.’ ”

Her plan is to hunt for a job over the summer and hope that school districts will be lenient about requiring that she possess an actual license, rather than a pending license, before interviewing her.

“But I can’t walk into a classroom in the fall without that license,” she said.

Growth in educator license applications processed annually by state officials

Rebecca Jones can be reached at

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.