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.

not so fast

Worried about enrollment, some Colorado school districts are suing to prevent cross-district busing

Haylen Orgunez, 14, hangs out the window of one of the new compressed natural gas buses as he poses for a group photo at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock, Colorado on November 16, 2016. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Six school districts and the associations that represent them are suing to stop a change to Colorado law that could increase access to school choice but that was approved under questionable circumstances.

The lawsuit filed this week in Denver District Court doesn’t deal with the merits of the policy but with the way it was enacted. In the last days of the 2018 legislative session, state Sen. Owen Hill, a Republican from Colorado Springs, took language from a defeated bill related to school choice and transportation and attached it as an amendment to a bill dealing with educational barriers for foster youth.

In a signing statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper said the maneuver potentially violates the “single-subject rule,” which requires that each bill deal with a one topic clearly expressed in the title of the bill and that any amendments also relate to that subject. He predicted there could be a lawsuit over the issue, and two months later, here we are.

The plaintiffs in the case are the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the small Englewood and Sheridan school districts in south suburban Denver, the Cheyenne Mountain district in Colorado Springs, the Monte Vista district in southwestern Colorado, the Poudre district based in Fort Collins, and the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in the state. Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and Poudre school board member Cathy Kipp also joined the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the “operations and finances” of the districts will be affected by legislation that was passed “in a manner and by a process expressly prohibited by the Colorado Constitution and in derogation of these plaintiffs’ constitutionally protected interests as stakeholders in the fairness, integrity, and transparency of the legislative processes employed by the Colorado General Assembly.”

“The bill was originally about foster care children,” said CASE executive director Lisa Escárcega. “And at the very end of the session, they rewrote the last part, and expanded it to all children. Those are the reasons why we’re filing the lawsuit.”

Hill called CASE’s position “a complete lie,” noting that that organization along with the school board association and the Sheridan and Englewood districts also opposed the standalone bill on which his amendment was based.

“Everything we vote on, we vote on the merits of the policy,” Hill said. “That’s what this is about for the unions and the districts. They don’t want kids to have the freedom to go across district lines.”

The foster youth bill seeks to make it easier for these students, who have some of the lowest graduation rates in the state, to finish high school by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Similar language appeared in a bill sponsored by Hill called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools.” Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

In 2015, Pueblo City Schools blocked the Pueblo 70 district from running buses through its jurisdiction to pick up some of the roughly 150 students who opted into the higher-performing district that primarily serves the surrounding county.

In opposing the original transportation provision, superintendents from Sheridan and Englewood raised the prospect of districts running busses through more affluent neighborhoods, siphoning off those students and the state funding that goes with them, while leaving poorer districts to educate those with the greatest needs.

Jeffco Public Schools is in a different position. In an email, Glass said his district might see net enrollment growth from this change, but he worries about the broader implications.

“We bring in approximately 3,000 more students than we lose to inter-district school choice and that trend would likely grow if this provision in the foster care bill comes to pass,” he wrote. “At issue for us is the violation of the single-subject element of the state constitution. This choice amendment would represent a seismic shift in education policy in the state. Such changes should be considered through open and transparent debate in the legislative process, not tucked in as a last minute amendment under another bill title.”

In an interview, Hill said the transportation provision was a necessary component of the foster youth bill because the state couldn’t simultaneously require that these students be transported back to their home schools while retaining the requirement to get consent from the district in which they now reside.

Hill never made this argument in committee. There was no discussion at all when the amendment was proposed and adopted, and advocates for the foster youth bill didn’t raise it as a concern. School districts already provide transportation to homeless youth who want to remain in their home schools under provisions in federal law, and foster youth are entitled to similar services. The transportation envisioned under the foster youth bill could also occur through rideshare services or by reimbursing foster parents for mileage, and nothing in state law prevents simply driving a student to school in another district.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the matter is litigated.

The lawsuit names Hickenlooper, Education Commissioner Katy Anthes and the State Board of Education as defendants because they oversee implementation of these laws. Representatives of the governor’s office and the state Department of Education declined to comment on the lawsuit. The State Board of Education did not take any position on the legislation in question when it was being debated at the Capitol.

The Attorney General’s Office is charged with defending the state from the lawsuit. A spokesperson for the attorney general declined to comment.

This article has been updated to include comment from Jeffco Superintendent Jason Glass and a response from the Attorney General’s Office.

Local control

Change in Colorado law sets up a ‘David and Goliath’ school choice battle no one saw coming

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Paraprofessional Ben Johnson washes of the back window of a bus at the Denver Public Schools Hilltop Terminal November 10, 2017. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Buses from other school districts already pass through the tiny Sheridan school district, picking up homeless students who are entitled by law to transportation to their home districts in nearby Littleton or Denver.

What if those buses could make a few additional stops, picking up perhaps dozens more students who aren’t homeless but prefer to attend higher-performing schools in other districts — and taking with them tens of thousands of dollars in state funding?

That’s the concern of small, relatively poor districts in Colorado after a last-minute provision tacked onto an unrelated bill in the closing days of the legislative session became law. It allows school districts to run buses through other districts’ boundaries without first getting consent, a change from current law.

“Will we start to see the David and Goliath of school choice, where a large district with lots of resources starts to do a marketing campaign and send buses into smaller districts?” Sheridan’s outgoing Superintendent Michael Clough asked in an interview with Chalkbeat.

The Colorado Association of School Executives, which represents superintendents, is exploring the possibility of a lawsuit. The Sheridan district is among the potential plaintiffs, after publicly opposing this change when it was part of a stand-alone bill earlier in the session, though no district has made a formal decision about legal action.

The lawsuit wouldn’t target the substance of the policy, but the way it was enacted. Colorado’s constitution requires that each bill deal with a single subject, clearly expressed in the title of the bill, and that any amendments also relate to that subject.

The transportation provision in question was slipped into a bill on educational stability for youth in foster care that also has a transportation component. In a signing statement attached to the foster youth bill, Gov. John Hickenlooper said it likely represents a violation of the single-subject rule and would be open to a legal challenge.

“We make no judgement today on whether this language is sound policy,” Hickenlooper wrote of the amendment. “However, we have serious concerns about the process in which this amendment was bolted onto such an important bill.”

Foster youth have the lowest four-year graduation rates in the state, much lower even than homeless youth and students whose parents are migrant workers. The bill seeks to make it easier for these students to graduate by requiring child welfare officials and school districts to work out transportation to the student’s home district when that’s in the child’s best interest. It also creates flexibility around graduation requirements when students do change schools. The bill’s title is “Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth.”

The tacked-on language, added in the Republican-controlled State Affairs committee five days before the end of the session, sounds relatively benign. It says that a school board “may furnish transportation” to students who are enrolled in the district but who live in another district. The provision applies to all students, not just those who are in the foster system. It also strikes language from an existing law that requires the consent of the school district from which students are being bussed.  

Where did this come from and why was it added on?

State Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican and chair of the Senate Education Committee, sponsored a bill earlier in the session with the same transportation provision. It was called “Improving School Choice in Traditional Schools” and also contained requirements to standardize the open enrollment process.

Students in Colorado can enroll in any school that has room for them and can meet their needs, but deadlines and procedures vary from district to district. Most students who go somewhere besides their neighborhood school don’t get transportation, something that advocates for school choice have long criticized as a major barrier for students from low-income families, whether they’re moving between districts or within one.

Hill’s bill was opposed by the Colorado Association of School Executives and by the Colorado Association of School Boards. They said allowing districts to run school buses in neighboring jurisdictions at will would represent a serious erosion of local control and call into question the entire purpose of school district boundaries. 

Wendy Rubin, superintendent of the suburban Englewood district south of Denver, raised the specter of neighboring districts offering bus service to more affluent neighborhoods and siphoning off the funding associated with those students while leaving Englewood to educate those with greater needs.

Like Sheridan, Englewood is a small district surrounded by larger, wealthier neighbors that post better test scores.

“If we lose a class of kids, we lose a teacher or we offer one AP class when we used to offer three,” Rubin said. “We do not have the economies of scale to withstand losses of kids of 30 or 40 in a year. We would be cutting programs left and right. And what does that do to the kids who stay?”

Rubin and Clough also worried that the legislation would allow districts to cherry-pick students – offering transportation to, say, a star athlete but telling a student with disabilities that it was unable to meet her needs.

To be clear, both superintendents said they have no reason to believe their neighboring districts have immediate plans to come after their students, but they fear future school boards might make different decisions, particularly if declining enrollment increases competition for per-student dollars. 

Supporters of expanding transportation options say such possible challenges do not outweigh the importance of students being able to pursue the best education available to them. If districts want students to stay, they should offer a high-quality education, not block buses from entering their borders, they say.

Kelly Caufield of the business-oriented education reform group Colorado Succeeds pointed to a 2015 case from Pueblo. The lower-performing Pueblo 60 district is surrounded by the higher-performing Pueblo 70 district, and roughly 150 students who lived in 60 used their open enrollment rights to go to school in 70. Pueblo 70 had 10 bus routes within the boundaries of Pueblo 60 – until Pueblo 60 said no.

“Why should a superintendent worried about neighborhood lines get in the way of that student having access to a better education?” Caufield asked. “This is the exact example where that kid and their family deserve to be in a better district. And if transportation is a barrier, this bill would address that.”

The Colorado Springs area that Hill represents also has numerous districts in close proximity to each other. None of them have weighed in publicly on this issue. Hill said he brought the bill forward at the request of constituents, but none of them testified before the committee.

Hill’s bill passed the Republican-controlled Senate but died in a Democratic-controlled House committee near the end of the session. The next day, the foster youth bill came up for its first vote in the Senate State Affairs committee. Filling in as chair, Hill amended the bill without explaining what his addition would do. With the 2018 legislative session nearing its close, the committee members had a long agenda in front of them representing hours of testimony and votes, with tight deadlines to move bills to the floor. No one asked any questions or raised any objections, and the amended bill was adopted.

Hill has pushed back repeated interview requests with promises to try to talk soon. He’s involved in a heated three-way primary campaign – the election is Tuesday – to unseat sitting U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn. When his school choice bill was heard in committee, he expressed surprise that the transportation provision was controversial and suggested it could be struck from the bill to save the rest of it.

Caufield said Colorado Succeeds wasn’t involved in the decision to amend the foster youth bill, but said, “we care about what’s good for kids, so we’re excited that it crossed the finish line, even if it’s in a different form.”

Clough said Sheridan is prepared to sign on to a lawsuit. Rubin stressed that she had had only a very preliminary conversation with her school board informing them of the situation and the possibility of a lawsuit.

The law is scheduled to go into effect Aug. 9, but school districts may seek an injunction stopping the transportation provision.