What a $10,000 fellowship for rural teachers will and won’t do to address teacher shortages

Backers of a bill that would establish a new fellowship program for rural educators acknowledge that it won’t, by itself, attract enough qualified teachers to meet the need in small communities outside the Front Range. But it could help students like Kenia Pinela complete her student teaching and get a full-time job in the community where she grew up.

Pinela told the House Education Committee Monday that she’s had to put off student teaching because she can’t afford to go a year without income.

“I have worked a full-time job since I started at Colorado Mountain College,” said Pinela, who grew up in Carbondale and would like to teach there. “It’s just what you do. You have a family, and you have to support it. This can be the determining factor in someone finishing the program or not finishing it.”

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat, and state Rep. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, would create 100 of these $10,000 fellowships every year for aspiring teachers in the last year of their educational programs.

As she advocated for the bill, Hamner held up a recently completed state report that lays out a path for addressing Colorado’s shortage of teachers in certain subjects, geographic areas, and schools. Strategic goal No. 3 calls for the state to “attract educator talent in content shortage areas by developing targeted programs in areas of need.”

Hamner and Rankin, who both represent rural districts and who often team up on education issues, said the bill is aimed squarely at that goal, even as they conceded it was just a small step. “We’re certainly not asking this bill to address the whole problem,” Rankin said.

State Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, said the bill “treats a symptom.”

“This seeks to get at an enormous problem, and that’s the teacher shortage,” he said. “My position is that we need to get at this in a different way, that it’s not a pipeline issue, but a funnel issue.”

That’s the metaphor that Lundeen uses to say that it should be easier for people to become teachers in the first place, including those entering the profession through non-traditional paths.

“I’m going to be a yes coming out of committee, but I’m not at all convinced this is the way to solve it,” he said.

The rural fellowships bill, which passed out of committee on a 9-2 vote, is just one of what lawmakers say will be a package of bills to address Colorado’s difficulties filling some teacher jobs. Another bill being heard for the first time this week would expand an existing program that provides stipends to rural teachers pursuing additional certifications and training. In addition to making up to 60 $6,000 stipends available each year, it would also allow people pursuing alternative licensure to apply for the benefit in exchange for a commitment to teach in a rural school for at least three years.

The state’s strategic plan to address the teacher shortage includes more than 30 ideas, ranging from loan forgiveness to housing assistance to extra pay for rural teachers. The report stops short of recommending a minimum wage for teachers, though the authors said lawmakers should “explore” that possibility.

The pointed questions that lawmakers asked about the fellowships bill highlight the difficulty of crafting legislation that will solve the bigger problems. Fewer students are enrolling in teacher programs, starting salaries are low in many communities, and the cost of living can be high. Many young teachers leave the profession after just a few years on the job, and in some rural communities, they face social isolation because most people their age leave for opportunities elsewhere.

In Colorado, the term “rural” encompasses communities that don’t necessarily face the same types of economic conditions or education challenges.

And the fellowship bill doesn’t directly address a problem that recruiters for rural school districts face: the teachers who sign up with certain ideas about what their life will be like and then pack it in after a year or two because they don’t enjoy small town life or because they can’t afford it.

“You brought up the gorilla in the room,” state Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican and retired teacher, said at one point. “Is that $10,000 going to make any difference in that teacher being able to afford housing?”

It will make a difference in that first year of student teaching, responded Matt Gianneschi, chief operating officer for Colorado Mountain College. The idea for the fellowships is based in part on a program that the college, which has 11 campuses in rural Colorado, is piloting this year on a small scale with its own money.

Barbara Johnson, director of teacher development at Colorado Mountain College, said teachers are in a different position than students coming out of many of the college’s other pre-professional programs. Culinary arts students get paid for their restaurant internships, while student teachers don’t. She said she frequently hears from promising students in a panic about how they’ll do their student teaching and hold down a paying job at the same time. Many of them have jobs that support not just themselves, but their family members.

Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget sets aside $10 million in marijuana tax revenue to help rural schools attract more teachers. Hamner and Rankin, who also sit on the Joint Budget Committee, hope their fellowship program will be among those funded by those pot taxes. The bill calls for the state to provide a portion of the money for the fellowships, while teacher colleges and school districts would provide the rest.

The money that students would earn through these fellowships would be treated like financial aid and wouldn’t be taxable income. If they’re offered a job at the end of their student teaching year, they could turn it down – but they’d have to pay back the fellowship, just like any other student loan.

However, to have the loan forgiven, they’d only have to stay at that first job for a year.

Supporters said the bill isn’t aimed so much at people from urban areas who want to give the rural life a try, though those student teachers might be eligible. Rather, it would help students from rural communities complete their education and return to give back. This “grow your own” approach might get more teachers on the job and keep them on the job.

“In many of these communities, we’re working with our own high school students,” said Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent for Eagle Valley Schools. “Those students know our communities. They have the resource of already having a place to live. You’re investing in your rural communities. With a $10,000 investment, it provides a job opportunity for someone in a rural community.”