Race to the Bottom

Colorado teachers can claim an unwelcome distinction: most underpaid in the nation (or close to it)

Teachers rally at the state capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on April 4, 2018. (J PAT CARTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Teachers from West Virginia to Oklahoma and Kentucky have staged protests or walked off the job in recent weeks to agitate for better pay and more money for their schools.

But the teachers who are the most underpaid in the nation – at least when compared to their peers with similar education levels – are in Colorado.

A recent study from the Education Law Center, a group that advocates for more school funding, ranked Colorado dead last in the competitiveness of its teacher salaries. The typical 25-year-old teacher at the beginning of her career in Colorado makes just 69 percent of what her peers with similar education levels who work similar hours earn.

In Facebook comments, in speeches on the floor of Colorado General Assembly, in asides made during interviews, teachers and policy makers have started to connect low pay here and labor unrest elsewhere. Earlier this year, the Denver teachers union threatened to call a strike vote, something teachers here haven’t done since the 1990s, when negotiations broke down over raising base pay.

Teacher pay also was highlighted in a report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education on the state’s teacher shortage, which is particularly acute in rural areas where salaries are even lower. An early draft of that report recommended that lawmakers establish a minimum salary for teachers, but the final draft backed off from that recommendation, marking the idea with $$$$ for “high cost.”

One reason teachers are further behind here is that Colorado is a relatively high-earning state, ranking eighth for median household income.

Colorado teachers also earn below the national average. The National Education Association’s annual ranking of the states put Colorado in 30th place for teacher pay in 2016, with an average annual salary of $51,204. In contrast, teachers in Wyoming, which ranks 16th for teacher pay, earned an average annual salary of $58,140, a hair below the national average and roughly equivalent to the salaries earned by other college-educated professionals there.

At the same time, the cost of living in urban districts is going up. A recent study found that starting teachers in three of the state’s largest districts, including Denver, could not afford to rent a one-bedroom apartment. Meanwhile, in Colorado’s rural districts, superintendents often share stories of teachers who leave for other states – or for jobs at big box stores that pay more.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier of states for school funding, with implications for teacher salaries, though conservatives will also point to the cost of pension benefits as a reason districts don’t raise wages. Since the Great Recession, lawmakers have held back billions of dollars that, under the state constitution, should have gone to schools.

There are some challenges to solving this problem. Any statewide tax increase to bring Colorado schools closer to the national average would require voter approval, and they’ve declined to do so twice in recent years. In recognition of this reality, the Denver teachers union extended negotiations until after November, when voters might see yet another tax increase for education on the ballot.

Unlike many states, Colorado has no statewide teacher salary schedule. State lawmakers have said they could send more money to schools, but they couldn’t make those districts raise teacher pay. However, many superintendents say they would raise pay if they could, in order to stay competitive.

This problem has been a long time in the making. An Economic Policy Institute report from 2016 found that teacher wages had fallen significantly behind over the preceding 20 years. Nationwide, teachers earned just 1.8 percent less than comparable workers in 1994, but by 2015, they earned 17 percent less. Even when the value of more generous public sector benefits were included, they earned 11 percent less than comparable workers. And as the report’s authors note, benefits can’t be used to make rent, buy groceries, or pay down student loans.

The Economic Policy Institute, a union-backed progressive think tank, ranked Colorado 50th, ahead only of Arizona, in how teacher pay compares to that of other college-educated workers. (Both reports include the District of Columbia, so 51st is last place.) The Economic Policy Institute looked at wages for all workers aged 18-64 who hold either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, not just starting salaries. Their study also found that more experienced teachers with a decade or two in the profession have fallen further behind their peers in other professions than young teachers just starting their careers.

What does this mean for students? Research on the connection between teacher pay and student performance is limited, but some studies have found that even modest pay increases reduce turnover and students do better when more teachers stick around longer.

Update: This article has been corrected to reflect that Colorado ranked 30th for teacher pay in 2016, not 46th as was previously reported by the National Education Association, which relied on data from the Colorado Department of Education. For more on how this mistake happened and its implications for the school funding debate, go here.

survey says

We asked Indiana teachers why they’re leaving the classroom: ‘Death by a thousand cuts’

PHOTO: Getty Images

In her first classroom at Indianapolis Public School 79 in 1977, art teacher Teresa Kendall had five whole potter’s wheels to herself. Plus clay. And a kiln.

She was under orders from her principal, she remembers, to make sure her students “have all the art they can have.”

Nearly 39 years, five layoffs, and four school districts later, she returned to Indianapolis Public Schools, where she was told there were just a handful of potter’s wheels in the entire district. She managed to get her hands on one, rescuing it from an unused classroom at Arlington High School.

Chalkbeat asks Indiana teachers: Why did you leave the classroom?

“It’s a huge difference,” Kendall said, comparing her situation to other schools she’s seen. “It just puts a knot in my stomach when I think about it … I think about what my kids at [School] 105 have to do without.”

Kendall said she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies, and she was overwhelmed by having to configure her 28-seat classroom to accommodate 62 students. At the end of last year, she decided to leave teaching altogether.

“It was the most solid community school I’ve ever been in, in all of my career,” Kendall said. “I miss it tremendously. But I couldn’t stay there.”

Carrie Black, an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, said classes might have been large at one point when the district was working to hire a substitute for a teacher on family leave, but the principal at School 105 said there were enough tables and chairs for the whole class. The principal also said teachers were told they could be reimbursed for supplies.

“Under no circumstances was she required to supply her art room in any way, shape, or form,” Black said. “So if she did, those were decisions she made on her own.”

More than 60 former Indiana teachers responded to a Chalkbeat survey about why they decided to leave teaching, a problem that policymakers and state lawmakers have said is part of the reason behind this year’s efforts to raise teacher salaries — which some educators and advocates say don’t go nearly far enough. Across the country, teachers have gone on strike and protested to demand better pay and working conditions, stirring up national conversation about the challenges they face.

Kendall, who has two master’s degrees, made $48,000 when she left IPS. The most she’d made, she said, was close to $62,000 when she taught in Lebanon. Now, she’s a paralegal.

The former teachers, from schools all over the state, reported a wide range of salaries over the years — from as low as $26,000 to more than $66,000. Now out of the classroom, they have found jobs as nurses, bus drivers, engineers, insurance agents, and seasonal park rangers. Some are unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, or graduate students.

While many former teachers said low pay or stagnant salaries contributed to their decisions to find other careers, more cited increasing responsibilities for reporting and testing, dwindling support and coaching from administrators, and “punitive” teacher evaluations.

Here is a selection of their reasons for leaving, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Too little pay

  • I had a third child and my entire paycheck was going toward insurance and childcare. I couldn’t afford to work.
  • State laws were being introduced that would make it next to impossible to ever increase my salary, or even to bargain to try to keep pace with the cost of living.
  • I was 20 years into teaching and felt undervalued, overworked, and underpaid for my education, training, and role as a teacher. I had reached the top of the pay scale and there was not room to advance. I didn’t want to become an administrator. Our insurance was steadily rising and with no pay raises, we were making less than what I had started with 20 years ago. My wife and I were both teachers and we both had to take part-time jobs to help pay the bills.
  • The level of stress, the constant demand on more and more of my time and energy with no compensation, and the low wages! Also the constant micromanaging!
  • In my 12th year I was making less than I did in year one. Health insurance was too costly, parents were overbearing, and the amount of accommodations needed for students was out of hand.

Too much testing, politics, and red tape

  • I couldn’t take any more of the state legislature’s disrespect of teachers. The loss of school funding, punitive evaluation methods, and absolute lack of willingness to truly listen to educators about our needs and what goes on in a classroom made me realize it wasn’t worth it anymore.
  • The constant change in state testing.
  • I had had it with ISTEP and school accountability practices demanding measurable outcomes and driving learning away from what we all know are best practices.
  • There was constant assessing without allowing kids to be kids and grow socially and mentally. Spent more hours assessing than teaching.
  • The time required to be spent on more red tape and paperwork instead of just doing what I knew was best for kids was too much.
  • I was working 10-12-hour days just to get state-mandated paperwork done AND papers graded. I loved my kids, I loved my school, I loved my principals, but I hated meetings every morning to appease legislators who are clueless, and I hated having to prove what a great teacher I was.
  • The time the job required meant my son and I were at school until 8 or 9 every night. All that time and dedication with no guarantee of a job? No thanks.
  • Teachers were treated as if we were entry level employees who could not make any decisions for themselves.
  • My afternoon classes had 39, 38, and 40 students. The Rise rubric [for teacher evaluations] made everyone feel like they were failures before even being evaluated.
  • I was dealing with burnout, and I was tired of working as many hours as I did and being as undervalued as I was. It felt like I constantly had administrators, parents and community members telling me what was wrong with how I did things.
  • I was expected to assign at least 10 math problems to every student every night. Since I had about 100 students, that’s about 1,000 math problems every night. Bottom line, time with my family is more important.
  • I felt overwhelmed by what the legislators were inflicting on us, the lack of true support from administrators, and just the stress that is teaching even in the best of times. Most of all — I was exhausted, I guess. Death by a thousand cuts, more or less.

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House this week would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”