A crisis is crippling communities across the state and threatens to endanger a whole generation of Coloradans: a lack of grade-school teachers.
More than 3,000 teaching positions remain vacant in this state, some of which have remained unfilled for years, says Kerrie Dallman, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. The teacher shortage cuts across several subject areas, from early childhood education to the arts to such fundamentals as English and math. The shortage is worse in the state’s 147 rural school districts, exacerbated in part by chronically low wages, according to a Colorado Department of Education report submitted to state lawmakers last month called the Educator Shortage Action Plan. The report attempts to outline the state's pressure points and makes more than thirty strategic recommendations to fix the teacher shortage issue.
Representative Janet Buckner, a Democrat from Aurora who chairs the House Education Committee, says that the state's more than thirty recommendations to reverse the shortage made clear that "there is no silver bullet," adding that competition for state tax dollars is fierce.
"There is only so much money [to appropriate] because of the other demands of the Joint Budget Committee," Buckner says. "What's most important to everyone is that our kids get what they need to be successful.”
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With the 2018 legislative session convening on January 10 and mounting skepticism from teachers' unions that lawmakers will appropriate more education dollars, the Colorado Education Association is homing in on policies that won’t dip into the state’s coffers.
“Recognizing that the state has funding issues, the first thing that [lawmakers] can do is restore respect for the teaching profession, treat teachers like professionals, and empower them to make the decisions that will make the most difference in their classroom,” Dallman says. “That doesn’t cost anything.”
For the Colorado Education Association, respecting teachers means more autonomy in the classroom and less emphasis on standardized testing.
Near the top of the union’s wish list this legislative session is to cut or reduce the weight of high-stakes testing in teacher evaluations. Teachers are evaluated on six statewide measurements known as quality standards. Since July 2013, half of each educator’s annual evaluation is weighted on the sixth quality standard, which is student learning outcomes. But for teachers in subject areas with statewide standardized testing through the Colorado Measures of Academic Success, scores must be used to calculate student learning outcomes.
Any teacher who receives two consecutive years of “ineffective” ratings on their evaluations are at risk of losing their tenure, which can only be earned back after three consecutive years of “effectiveness,” according to statutory requirements. The Colorado Education Association says the policy is demoralizing for teachers already worn thin by a lack of resources. Non-tenured, or probationary, teachers run the risk of losing their job if a district decides not to renew their teaching contract.
“We’ve been talking with House and Senate leadership," notes Dallman. "We’ve been talking with individual legislators on the education committees. Our hope is that we can really use this year to chart a path forward."
Changes to teacher evaluations, Dallman says, would be a step in the right direction — and doesn’t cost taxpayers anything — toward improving the teacher-shortage issue and holding on to existing talent. According to the state’s action plan, 25 percent of non-retirees who voluntarily left the teaching profession did so because they were dissatisfied with teacher accountability and evaluation measures.
Colorado public schools, which have more turnover than other U.S. schools on average, had a four-year attrition rate of 16.4 percent in 2015. The national average was 14.2 percent.
The effects of attrition are compounded by a tough hiring market for districts since enrollment in and graduation from colleges and post-baccalaureate education programs have dropped by nearly a fourth since 2010. Overall, teacher licensure has decreased by nearly 17 percent since 2010, according to the report.
Buckner says she's working with colleagues to chart a legislative path for districts to work within their communities to encourage and develop educators.
"People who have deep roots in the community are more likely to stay," Buckner, a former K-12 educator, says. “We don't have anything yet, but we’re beginning to work on ideas based on these recommendations.”
While the state's action plan gives a sweeping overview of the factors at play and ways to turn the tide, it stops short of attaching any funding requests or dollar figures, instead resorting to a Yelp-like rating system — from free to a single dollar sign representing "affordable" all the way to four dollar signs for “high cost” — to outline the costs of implementing each recommendation.
And it all comes down to money.
School districts are, by and large, funded through state and local tax dollars. District funding levels are tied to a state funding formula that calculates per-pupil expenses, which then determines each district’s annual revenue.
Due to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, a district receives the tax dollars allotted to it by the state, and nothing more. This policy was set in place to equalize the rural-urban divide by spreading cash out evenly throughout the state. But as the cost of education and living expenses go up, districts that can't raise additional cash are struggling.
Districts like Denver Public Schools have passed ballot initiatives in the past to raise their revenue ceilings using TABOR override elections. Others, like School District 27J in neighboring Adams County, have failed six times to pass a mill-levy increase, including its most recent attempt in November.
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Because of the growing disparity between those who can and can’t pass a TABOR override, the state's education lobby is considering revisiting an initiative that fizzled before it could make it onto the ballot in time for the 2016 presidential election. The ballot initiative, which didn't gather enough signatures in 2016, would have allowed the state to keep revenue it collected over TABOR limits for the next decade. More than one-third of that additional revenue would have gone to education.
The loss came three years after Colorado voters defeated a constitutional amendment that would have redesigned the state’s funding formula and pumped $1 billion into public schools.
Dallman says that while a ballot initiative isn’t currently in the works, she and others in the education-advocacy community may try again soon.
“We’ve got to focus on the things that don't cost money until we can successfully pass a ballot measure to increase school funding,” Dallman says. “It's my hope that in a year or two, we’ll see an issue [on] the ballot.”