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.

Future of Teaching

Undocumented students face hurdles getting into college. Here’s how Indiana teachers have helped them succeed

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Cinthia, Jessika Osborne, Angela Adams, and Karina Garduño were panelists featured in a discussion moderated by Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter with the Teacher Project. The event focused on undocumented students' access to college.

Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.

Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.

Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.

The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.

“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”

Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.

Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

Work to build trust.

Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.

Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.

“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.

Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.

“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.

Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.

“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.

To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.

Don’t panic.

Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.

“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”

Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.

“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.

Know your limits.

Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.

“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”

And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.

Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.

“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”

Local funding

Aurora board to consider placing school tax hike on November ballot

A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora, Colorado helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Seeking to boost student health and safety and raise teacher pay, Aurora school officials will consider asking voters to approve a $35 million tax plan in November.

The school board will hear its staff’s proposal for the proposed ballot measure Tuesday. The board may discuss the merits of the plan but likely would not decide whether to place it on the ballot until at least the following week.

Aurora voters in 2016 approved a bond request which allowed the district to take on $300 million in debt for facilities, including the replacement building for Mrachek Middle School, and building a new campus for a charter school from the DSST network.

But this year’s proposed tax request is for a mill levy override, which is ongoing local money that is collected from property taxes and has less limitations for its use.

Aurora officials are proposing to use the money, estimated to be $35 million in 2019, to expand staff and training for students’ mental health services, expanding after-school programs for elementary students, adding seat belts to school buses, and boosting pay “to recruit and retain high quality teachers.”

The estimated cost for homeowners would be $98.64 per year, or $8.22 per month, for each $100,000 of home value.

Based on previous discussions, current board members appear likely to support the recommendation.

During budget talks earlier this year, several board members said they were interested in prioritizing funding for increased mental health services. The district did allocate some money from the 2018-19 budget to expand services, described as the “most urgent,” and mostly for students with special needs, but officials had said that new dollars could be needed to do more.

The teacher pay component was written into the contract approved earlier this year between the district and the teachers union. If Aurora voters approved the tax measure, then the union and school district would reopen negotiations to redesign the way teachers are paid.

In crafting the recommendation, school district staff will explain findings from focus groups and polling. Based on polls conducted of 500 likely voters by Frederick Polls, 61 percent said in July they would favor a school tax hike.

The district’s presentation for the board will also note that outreach and polling indicate community support for teacher pay raises, student services and other items that a tax hike would fund.