first steps

Why Colorado’s teacher shortage bills fall short

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post
Algebra teacher Jessica Edwards helps students with math problems during her 9th grade algebra class at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora, Colorado.

Maren Jorgensen has taught special education in Denver Public Schools for eight years. Next school year she’ll be teaching in Minnesota, earning $22,000 more doing the same job.

Aurora kindergarten teacher Shannon Rizzo is also moving out of state. She and her fiance currently rent a room in a friend’s house. When they started looking for their own place, they realized they couldn’t afford anything in the Denver metro area – but could enjoy a comfortable standard of living if they moved to her fiance’s native Texas.

Meanwhile, out on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, Superintendent Tom Slattery of the 781-student Burlington district makes cold calls to math majors from small colleges in Kansas and Nebraska, looking for potential teachers among people who never before imagined themselves in the classroom.

“You may hear ‘hard-to-fill positions’, and people bring up math and science,” Slattery said, “But I am telling you, every position is hard to fill in Burlington.”

A package of bills making their way to the desk of Gov. John Hickenlooper aims to make those positions a little easier to fill, but the legislative effort will have only a modest impact on Colorado’s teacher shortage because it fails to tackle the root causes. Teacher pay is below the national average, dramatically so in rural districts, experienced teachers have plenty of other options, and fewer people are entering a profession that promises long hours for low pay and little respect.

Addressing the shortage of teachers in certain subject areas and throughout rural parts of Colorado was one of the top education priorities this session. The 2018-19 budget sets aside $10 million to reduce teacher shortages, and the bills check off many of the recommendations in a report commissioned last year.

The proposals provide financial assistance to student teachers and teachers pursuing alternative certification in exchange for commitments to remain with their districts, expand residency programs to see if more intense support systems help more teachers stay in the field, and extend grants to school districts and charter schools to come up with their own incentive packages. Several hundred young teachers are likely to benefit directly.

But lawmakers avoided more expensive recommendations, like loan forgiveness and a minimum salary for teachers. They also declined to take up more politically charged ideas, like loosening licensure requirements or re-examining the state’s accountability system for teachers.

“We know that there are strategies that work and there are proven models that are a good investment,” said Leslie Colwell of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “We feel like it’s unfortunate that some of them were not seriously considered, particularly the loan forgiveness.”

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee killed a bill that would have provided up to $5,000 a year in loan forgiveness for five years for educators in hard-to-fill positions and regions where the teacher shortage is more acute. The discussion became a debate about licensure, which many Republicans see as unnecessary regulation. GOP lawmakers asked why educators need higher degrees that cause them to incur student loan debt in the first place.

Over in the Democratic-controlled House, a bill that would have allowed districts to hire unlicensed teachers faced almost certain death until its Republican sponsor completely reworked it into a much more modest proposal helping out-of-state teachers more easily obtain a Colorado license.

The teachers union, a powerful interest at the Capitol, strongly opposes efforts to further erode licensure. Colorado already has roughly two dozen “alternative pathways,” training other than traditional university educator-preparation programs, often for teachers who are already in the classroom with temporary credentials.

Doing away with licensure doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet. Many charter schools hire unlicensed teachers but still have a hard time filling certain positions. Slattery, in Burlington, has an exemption from licensing requirements so he can cast his hiring net far and wide, and he’s found some great teachers that way. But it’s still a painstaking process to find candidates, and each one needs to be trained at the district’s expense.

“The funding of public schools needs to change,” Slattery said. “Some people don’t like to hear that. I grew up in rural Colorado, and I’m probably one of the most conservative superintendents you’ll meet. We either have to decide education for our young kids is a priority and No. 1, or it’s not.”

Colorado lawmakers are sending more money to schools this year, including an extra $30 million for rural schools. State Rep. Brittany Pettersen, the Lakewood Democrat who chairs the House Education Committee, said she hopes that money translates to higher pay for teachers.

And she believes the teacher shortage bills, several of which she sponsored, will have a meaningful impact.

“We did what we could with the dollars that were set aside,” she said. “We’ll see an impact because of these bills, but to make a big impact, we need a lot more money.”

Last year’s report stopped short of recommending a minimum salary for teachers, an idea that appeared in an early draft, and didn’t put a dollar amount on what it would take to make a meaningful dent in persistent shortages in some areas. That disappointed some rural districts that hoped that quantifying the problem would force the legislature to act.

Right now, the state even doesn’t have a solid grasp on the scope of the problem. A voluntary survey of school districts found that a large majority had seen a decrease in qualified applicants. Eighty-one percent of urban and suburban districts started the 2017-18 school year with unfilled positions, as did almost two-thirds of rural districts. Statewide, the reported vacancies only numbered in the hundreds, out of a teacher workforce of some 52,000, but most rural districts didn’t respond to the survey.

Starting this fall, the survey will be mandatory, giving the state education department a clearer picture of where and in what fields the need is most acute. State Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and former superintendent, said even small numbers of vacancies can be a big problem. A vacancy of one is a teacher shortage, he said, if it means a high school has no math teacher.

A study found that in 95 percent of the state’s rural districts, teacher salaries fall below the cost of living. Colorado recruits 50 percent of its teachers from out of state, so we’re more vulnerable to losing teachers to higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Within Colorado, rural districts struggle to compete with urban Front Range districts.

Stephanie Aragon, who studies these issues for the Education Commission of the States, said many places use incentives to lure teachers to hard-to-serve areas, but those programs often are not sustainable. Once teachers get experience and fulfill whatever service obligation they incurred, they depart for greener pastures.

This has led some in Colorado to focus on a “grow your own” approach. Three bills this session use elements of this strategy, which involves helping students from communities that have a hard time hiring enough teachers become teachers themselves in their hometowns or nearby. Research supports this approach, and rural districts like the idea of recruiting teachers from among their own.

One bill would provide a $10,000 fellowship to student teachers in rural communities, and another provides stipends up to $6,000 for educators in rural districts pursuing alternative licensure or additional education. A third allows student teachers to have their own classrooms and earn a salary and tuition reimbursement, with the state offsetting some of the cost. Each of these programs would require the beneficiaries to stay with that district for a set amount of time.

The hope is that these programs will also diversify the teacher workforce by providing support that could be critical to students from low-income families.

Another bill provides money to expand and monitor teacher residency programs, which support and mentor teachers early in their careers. The goal here is keep more young teachers in the classroom beyond the five-year mark.

Tory Tripp, a ninth-grade math teacher at Manual High School in Denver, says her residency program was essential to getting her through her first year of teaching.

“The opportunity to be in a classroom for the entire year and understand the ups and downs of the school year and having practice leading things on my own was really important,” she said. “If I need to vent or need advice, I still call my friends from the my residency program.”

Even so, her first year was “brutal” and not everyone from her residency group remained a teacher.

Tripp said that when she’s thought about leaving teaching, it’s been the stress that has tipped her over the edge, not the money. Nonetheless, higher pay for teachers who take on challenging jobs would help. 

“If we really want to pull teachers to those schools, something needs to be different between a school in Cherry Creek and a school like Manual,” she said, distinguishing the more affluent suburban district from her own school. “You need to compensate for the greater demands that working in a high-needs school place on you.”

Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said improving pay is essential, but she also noted the need to boost respect for teachers and improve working conditions. Yet there were no policy recommendations to address that – and no bills either.

“The respect component is key because it acknowledges that educators are professionals, and we should listen to them when they raise concerns about student learning conditions and teacher working conditions,” she said.

Dallman ties this issue specifically to Colorado’s law linking teacher evaluations to students’ performance on state assessments. Nationally, a quarter of teachers who leave the profession list dissatisfaction with teacher accountability and evaluation measures as a major reason; roughly twice as many as cite low pay. The state report did not recommend revisiting Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law, and the idea didn’t come up at the legislature this year. However, some Democratic gubernatorial candidates have said it’s time.

Mary Hulac, who teaches language arts at Prairie Heights Middle School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver, a school that faced state intervention last year, said the hardest thing about teaching is “the lack of positive feedback,” not knowing for years if you’ve made a difference. She’d like to see the state put some resources into promoting “how attractive teaching is, for the intangibles.”

“I tell my students every day, this is the best job,” she said.

Hulac also thinks training for principals isn’t given enough attention, compared to training for teachers. More than a fifth of teachers who leave the profession cite dissatisfaction with school leadership.

“As I’ve gotten older, I gravitate toward the strongest principals, and I would put up with more hassle and paperwork to have strong leadership,” she said.

A bill that would have provided leadership training for principals died in the Senate State Affairs committee near the end of the session.

Read more about the teacher shortage bills passed by the Colorado General Assembly.

Round up

What Colorado lawmakers did for and to schools in 2018

Jefferson County educators Joel Zigman and Elizabeth Hall march during a teachers rally for more educational funding at the Colorado State Capitol on Thursday, April 26. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The Colorado General Assembly’s 2018 session ended with a down-to-the-wire compromise on pension reform that left some teachers feeling bruised, but Gov. John Hickenlooper said there should be no confusion. In a world of competing priorities, education came out ahead.

The 2018-19 budget puts more into K-12 education than the state has spent in years, and Republicans agreed to put ongoing taxpayer dollars into stabilizing the Public Employees Retirement Association system, something they had long resisted.

Making those investments is why lawmakers ended up budgeting far less money into transportation infrastructure, another top priority, than Republican leaders wanted.

“That money went to PERA and school teachers,” Hickenlooper said. “Let’s be bluntly honest about that.”

Hickenlooper, who began the session with a certain futility about increasing education spending, called it “pretty remarkable” that Colorado’s education funding shortfall is down to $672 million, when it was over $1 billion just a few years ago.

“We made major investments in K-12 education,” he said.

The education bills this year were not just about money. Lawmakers also took modest steps to address the teacher shortage, tightened up the school accountability system, made it a little easier for foster children to graduate from high school – and enabled more children from low-income families to take AP exams or just eat lunch at school.

Here’s a look at the education legislation that made it through this year:

School finance

A little more than $7 billion in base spending will go to K-12 education in 2018-19, a 6.95 percent increase from the current school year, with the state portion going up considerably more than the local share.

In addition to mandated budget increases, the bill adds $150 million more for education. That means Colorado fell $672 million short of its constitutionally required level of education funding, a gap known as the negative factor or budget stabilization factor. That gap is the smallest it has been since this budget maneuver was created during the Great Recession, but for some, its persistence is a major source of frustration.

Average per-pupil spending for 2018-19 will be around $8,137, a $475 increase from this year. That translates into millions of additional dollars for many districts. Lawmakers also sent an extra $30 million to cash-strapped rural districts and set aside $5.5 million for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local property tax revenue they don’t get.

This abundance was made possible by a booming state economy and a major compromise last year that eased the impact of constitutional restrictions on state spending. With teachers marching on the state Capitol, legislators urged local school boards to turn some of this new money into pay raises.

Two efforts to change how schools are funded failed to gain traction, though. One bill would have changed how Colorado shares money with school districts, giving much more weight to student characteristics like disability, poverty, and the need to learn English. It would have only gone into effect if voters approved a major tax increase in November.

A proposal to use incentives to get more school districts to ask voters to raise local taxes never even got introduced. It was one solution to the long-standing problem of unequal mill levies around the state, and its proponents hope that an off-season interim committee on school finance will consider it for next year.

Also going to an interim committee: some sort of fix to constitutional provisions that have had the unintended consequence of ratcheting down property taxes in rural districts.

Teacher shortage

Colorado lawmakers set aside $10 million and passed nine bills to address the shortage of teachers in some subjects and in many rural areas. The bills send $2 million to the Colorado Department of Higher Education to work with educator preparation programs and $3 million to school districts to design their own incentives to keep teachers. There are $10,000 fellowships and $6,000 stipends for rural teachers and a “grow your own” program that pays the final 36 credit hours for student teachers if they make a three-year commitment to a district.

There are also two bills that make it easier for teachers moving here from other states to get licensed and another that simplifies the background check process for student teachers.

Several hundred teachers are likely to benefit directly from these programs, but without money to raise teacher pay, especially in rural districts, the impact will be modest. Bills on loan forgiveness and improving school leadership – two strategies supported by research – didn’t pass.

Pension benefits

To address the unfunded liability in the public employee retirement system, legislators raised the retirement age to 64, increased employee contributions by 2 percentage points, and cut retirement benefits. They also boosted contributions from school districts by 0.25 percentage points.

The deal also promises that $225 million a year in taxpayer money will go into the public pension fund, something Republicans had long opposed.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, sees the compromise approved in the final hour of the 2018 session as putting too much burden on teachers.

Accountability

Struggling Colorado schools being monitored by the state will have to show more sustained improvement to avoid intervention under legislation passed this session. Requested by the Colorado Department of Education, this bill also clarifies the next steps after a school or district implements a state-ordered improvement plan, allows the state to step in earlier, and requires more communication with parents.

Lawmakers also approved changes to the READ Act, which requires schools to identify struggling readers in the early grades and provide additional support. The update seeks to ensure that schools are using appropriate materials and that they’re using money for its intended purposes. The law also creates a working group to study the READ Act plans developed by schools and recommend additional changes.

There were two changes to the factors schools use to reach state accreditation. One bill gives schools credit for the number of students who enlist in the military after graduation, similar to the credit they get for students who enroll in college, and the other gives schools credit for students who take Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes or who enroll in college classes while in high school.

Colorado lawmakers also took an additional step to prevent schools from pressuring students to take state assessments, prohibiting the use of rewards like pizza parties or raffle tickets.

College credit

Colorado has had a big push in recent years to expand access to concurrent enrollment and AP courses, particularly for low-income students and students of color. Because the courses allow students to get college credit while they’re still in high school, they’re seen as offsetting some of the cost of college, allowing students to graduate with less debt.

Lawmakers created a $500,000 grant program to help high schools cover AP exam costs for students from low-income families. At $94 apiece, the cost can really add up, yet a passing score on an exam can excuse a student from an entire college course. A federal program that reduced the cost of the exam ended in 2017.

Legislators also continued an existing pilot program that pays rural school districts for every student who takes an AP class and exam. The goal is to encourage school districts with fewer resources to offer more college-prep courses.

Lawmakers also passed a bill that requires school districts to provide more information to students and parents about the benefits of concurrent enrollment options, along with deadlines and requirements.

At the same time, they voted to restrict the expansion of so-called “early college” high schools that allow students to stay in school a fifth and sixth year while taking college classes. These programs in Eagle County and Denver Public Schools are small now, but state budget writers feared that their expansion could put a strain on school finance.

Foster youth

Youth in foster care have the lowest graduation rates in the state, much worse than homeless youth. One bill makes it easier for these children to make it across the finish line. It provides money to pay for transportation to allow them to stay in their home school, and it also provides flexibility in graduation requirements.

This makes Colorado one of the first states to comply with federal requirements about providing school transportation for youth in foster care.

School security

After a deadly shooting in Parkland, Florida, students twice marched on the state Capitol, many of them calling for more gun control. In Colorado’s split legislature, gun control is a non-starter. Instead, lawmakers voted to set aside $30 million for school security. The money can be used to provide additional training to school resource officers who are already employed, to train school staff in crisis response, and to improve the physical security of school buildings. It can’t be used to hire new school resources officers, a provision drafted in response to advocates concerned about the criminalization of students of color.

Legislators also dedicated $5 million for interoperable radio systems to allow rural school districts to more directly communicate with emergency responders.

Schools will have to apply for grants to use this money.

Well-being

Colorado elementary school students who qualify for reduced-price lunch could already get the meal for free, thanks to a state program that picks up the 40-cent cost not covered by the federal lunch program.

A new law extends that benefit to middle school students. School nutritionists had seen a big drop-off in lunch participation in middle school, and they hope this program encourages more kids to eat at school. Advocates also hope it reduces the practice of “lunch shaming,” in which kids are denied hot lunch and given crackers or other small snacks to get their parents to pay outstanding lunch debt.

Lawmakers also made a small step to address youth suicide, the second leading cause of death of people aged 10 to 24 in Colorado. Grants will help schools train staff in recognizing the warning signs of suicide and in how to get help for children in crisis.

Early childhood

Lawmakers extended a tax credit for people who donate to child care centers. This credit, which allows donors to take half the value of their donation as an income tax credit, is an important incentive in the eyes of people who run these businesses.

Another bill created a licensing process for substitute early-childhood teachers that advocates hope will ease staffing shortages.

Of more significance to middle- and upper-class families, Colorado lawmakers expanded the income tax credit for child care expenses. Parents can take a percentage of their federal child care credit as a state tax credit. This bill raises the income limit to take advantage of this tax credit from $60,000 to $150,000 and increases the percentage of the federal credit that can be applied to state taxes.

Rural broadband

Money from a fund previously used to subsidize rural telephone service will be invested in broadband construction through 2023. Bringing high-speed internet to remote parts of Colorado is key to economic development and the provision of modern health care. It also will allow students in rural schools to use the same online resources that other students do. This is a long-standing priority of Hickenlooper, realized in his final year in office.

School construction and repair

Colorado will put more marijuana tax money into the BEST program, which gives out grants to school districts for building repairs and, occasionally, new buildings. A bill lifted a $40 million cap on marijuana excise tax revenue going to the program. However, the money won’t go as far as it could have because lawmakers are hesitant to borrow against pot money in an uncertain regulatory environment.

reality check

Colorado lawmakers’ pension compromise raises teacher retirement age, cuts benefits

Colorado General Assembly in the House of Representatives. (Photo by Joe Amon/The Denver Post)

In the final hour of the 2018 legislative session, Colorado lawmakers adopted a compromise plan they hope will bring solvency to the state’s public employees retirement system.

The deal that emerged from 12 hours of negotiations Wednesday was not the deal that many people expected to see when the day started. It raises the retirement age for new teachers from 58 to 64, requires public employees to put an additional 2 percent of their pay into the retirement system, and reduces cost-of-living raises for retirees. The Colorado Education Association said it shows a serious disregard for the thousands of teachers who rallied at the Capitol just weeks ago.

But the teacher rallies were far from the only political backdrop to the negotiations. This is an election year, and a Republican might be sitting in the governor’s office come January, namely Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton. His plan for the Public Employees Retirement Association system includes a freeze on cost-of-living increases for retirees until the fund becomes more financially stable, something that could take decades, and no additional taxpayer contributions.

That gave Democrats an incentive to get a deal done this year. And beyond politics, the problems with PERA only increase every year that more money doesn’t go into the system.

PERA is estimated to have an unfunded liability of between $32 billion and $50 billion, endangering retirement benefits down the road, along with the state’s credit rating.

The bill that passed commits $225 million a year in taxpayer money to shoring up the pension system, something long opposed by Republicans, as well as by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. In an unusual late night appearance to lobby for the bill with skeptical Democrats, Hickenlooper stressed the significance of that compromise.

But last minute changes to the bill mean that the taxpayer contribution won’t increase over time. Instead, public employers – like school districts – will put in an additional 0.25 percent.

Colorado teachers can’t participate in Social Security, which means they rely on PERA benefits in retirement. Those are based on a percentage of what they made in their highest earning years, along with other factors. In 2016, the average pension for a school district retiree was $37,000. The bill freezes pensions for two years, then offers 1.5 percent cost-of-living raises, not the current 2 percent.

“We are very disappointed in our elected officials who did not support educators and retirees, and even chose to take money out of their pockets,” CEA President Kerrie Dallman said in a statement emailed after the vote. She called the bill “an unfortunate lesson in politics, reminding us that those in power who represent the people can still be completely tone deaf to their constituents. … This is bad policy done in haste.”

The version of the pension overhaul that passed the Republican-controlled Senate in March called for employee contributions to gradually go up 3 percentage points, to 11 percent, and for cost-of-living raises to go down to 1.25 percent. The version that came out of the Democratic-controlled House spared employees any increase in contributions. The $225 million taxpayer contribution was secured as a set aside in the budget process.

The final version was always going to be somewhere in the middle, but the reaction from Democrats indicates this deal was not the one they had in mind. Several lawmakers asked to be removed as co-sponsors from the legislation.

Brian Eason of the Associated Press reported that the teachers union was willing to accept a retirement age of 63, but no higher. The union lost that battle. The final bill still does not allow teachers to opt into a 401(k)-like defined contribution plan, something the union adamantly opposed.

House Majority Leader K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, pleaded with her colleagues to think of the long-term problems that need to be solved.

“We have to reform the system in a way that spreads the burden and has shared sacrifice,” she said. “Some people are not happy that there’s an additional taxpayer contribution. Some people are not happy that there’s an additional employee contribution. But the system is not going to fix itself.”

She said a no vote was a vote to “leave a $32 billion problem unaddressed.”

On the floor of the House, with the clock ticking down, no Democrats argued against the bill, but 25 of them voted against it, including Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran and every Democratic member of the House Education Committee.

On Thursday morning, Duran said she thought the retirement age and the employee contributions in the bill were too high.

“These are tough conversations,” she said. “PERA could have been solvent without the proposal that was passed last night. There were some things they didn’t have to push as hard.”

Some conservative Republicans also voted no in the House – they don’t think this bill does enough to fix the public pension system. But over in the Senate, where state Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial led negotiations, the GOP presented a unanimous bloc of yes votes. All 11 no votes came from Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said that the PERA bill represented a compromise for both sides, and he had no criticism of it after all the effort that went into making a deal.

“I see folks on the right saying it doesn’t go far enough, and I heard that people from the teachers union were quite upset,” he said. “In a split legislature, I don’t know how much better it could have got done, but it got done.”

This story has been updated with comments from House and Senate leadership.