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.