Report: Colorado’s education system is in crisis, and teachers are feeling it

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A second grader puts work away in Jen Holtzman’s special education class at Lincoln Elementary School in Denver on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

Colorado’s education system is in a state of crisis, leaving many teachers feeling overworked, underpaid, not respected and worried that large, systemic issues connected to underfunding are hurting their students.

That’s according to the annual State of Education report from the largest teacher’s union in the state, the Colorado Education Association. The report includes survey results from 1,600 of the association’s 39,000 educators and school staff.

The survey found 85 percent of educators say the classroom teacher shortage in their school is worse this year than in previous years. Sixty percent say they’re considering leaving the profession in the near future, two-thirds are worried about a mass shooting at their school and just a third feel respected by state lawmakers. Though the challenges can feel overwhelming, many educators expressed hope that there are solutions, some of them legislative.

“We must demand that our schools have the resources to meet every child’s needs with well-trained and supported educators, for a sustainable, equitable, and thriving education system,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association.

School funding is a major issue

Despite the fact that average per pupil spending is at its highest level of $7,748, Colorado still spends well below the national average.

Schools have lost about $10 billion in funding over the past 13 years as a result of a mechanism state lawmakers use to balance the state budget by cutting school funding. That has had “deleterious downstream effects” on every aspect of schools: pay, the educator shortage, student outcomes, and more, according to the report.

“We have an entire generation of students who have never attended a fully funded public education system in Colorado,” Baca-Oehlert said.

 Gov. Jared Polis has promised to eliminate that debt — called the budget stabilization factor — to schools. But that would only return Colorado to 1989 inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending, according to the advocacy group, Great Education Colorado.

The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, restrictions prevented a $2 billion surplus from being spent on education, the report states.

Low pay and burnout

Overwhelming workloads, fueled by a staffing shortage, is the main reason teachers are quitting. Low pay is the second most-cited reason. Many educators report having to work two to three jobs to make ends meet.

The report said Colorado educators make about 36 percent less compared to other professionals with the same amount of education, citing research by the Economic Policy Institute. Colorado educators make on average $60,000 a year.

The report said schools are “dangerously and unsustainably staffed.”

Dave Lockely, president of the Adams 12 Five Star teachers association, said his district has more than 40 vacancies in special education. That means in some cases, educators are doing double the workload or reading specialists cover the shortages at the expense of helping new teachers.

“Every time we're missing one of these key cogs in the larger machine of education, it means that our students don't get the education that they deserve,” he said. “When our teachers are covering for our paras (classroom aides) or vice versa, they're not doing their primary work, which doesn't allow them to do what's best for students… and they're leaving at an unprecedented rate because they just can't do it anymore.”

One educator said in the report: "We have had to cancel every team planning day for the last year and a half because of lack of subs. I have had a class of 29 first-graders for the first 54 days of school because we couldn't get another teacher."

Educator respect: ‘Admin-ed to death’

Increasingly teachers feel a lack of respect from lawmakers and also from a small but loud group of parents who are attacking what and how educators teach. One in five teachers say they are considering leaving the profession due to politically motivated attacks on their curriculum or themselves. 

“We try to present a variety of perspectives for kids so that they can learn and be effective problem solvers and be critical thinkers,” said Kevin Vick, a social studies teacher and CEA vice president, during a media call. “And what we are seeing on an increasing basis is educators getting harassed over and over again for not supporting one particular viewpoint in the classroom.”

Just a third of educators feel valued by state elected officials. Educators say they want their voices at the center of future education legislation. They say too often laws and standards are enacted without any input from seasoned educators as to how “innovations” might hinder or harm students.

“It is deeply demoralizing. I work in a relatively well-resourced neighborhood public school. However, post-pandemic there's a big push to try unproven, experimental methods of assessment, accountability, and curricula. I feel like I'm being admin-ed to death,” said another educator.

Safety at school, from guns and for LGBTQ students

Two-thirds of educators are “very” or “somewhat worried” about a mass shooting at their school. About 70 percent said that if educators were allowed to carry firearms, they would feel less safe.

The report highlighted three factors that have a negative impact on teachers’ and students’ well-being: a lack of mental health support, a dearth of LGBTQ acceptance and inclusion and easy access to firearms.

It said Colorado schools are not equipped to be the sole provider of mental health support for students, yet they often function as that, particularly in the state’s poorest neighborhoods. Forty percent of educators believe increased funding for mental health counseling in schools and communities would reduce gun violence in schools.

The report said inclusive curriculum is critical to improving the mental health of LGBTQ educators and students. Forty percent of respondents had witnessed or heard about students being discriminated against due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

LGBTQ teachers have also received derogatory notes and comments, according to Kasey Ellis, president of the Cherry Creek Education Association. She said that, and calls for books with LGBTQ characters in them to be banned, has made educators feel unsafe.

“If the educator is not accepted, what does that mean for a student?” Ellis said.

Proposed legislative solutions

The report outlines several policy solutions for this year’s legislative session, including bills on education funding, affordable housing, working conditions, mental health, and gun safety regulations. One bill the CEA is backing is a bill to make the process of getting a Colorado teaching license more efficient.

Educators are asking for a fully funded education system, a modernized tax system, and affordable access to post-secondary education and workforce opportunities for high school graduates.

They’d like an accountability system that uses a range of indicators to evaluate how schools are doing, including students' access to resources like advanced coursework, fully qualified teachers, libraries, health and wellness programs, and arts and athletic programs.

They’d like gun safety legislation and training for educators and support staff in bullying prevention, positive behavioral supports and classroom management.