Colorado educators call for change of a system ‘on the brink of crisis’

· Dec. 13, 2023, 1:08 pm
Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits with young student Mario Corona, age 6, in kindergarten at McGlone Elementary School in the Montbello section of Denver, Thursday May 14, 2015.
Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits with young student Mario Corona, age 6, in kindergarten at McGlone Elementary School in the Montbello section of Denver, Thursday May 14, 2015.
Brennan Linsley/AP Photo
Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan visits with young student Mario Corona, age 6, in kindergarten at McGlone Elementary School in the Montbello section of Denver, Thursday May 14, 2015.

Years of school underfunding, an accountability system that erodes trust in educators, rising mental health issues in youth, and school violence are all playing into critical staffing shortages in Colorado’s schools. And educators are worried that other 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 1,700 of the association’s 39,000 educators and school staff.

Nearly 60 percent said they’re considering leaving the profession in the near future, two-thirds are worried about a shooting at their school and half have struggled with housing costs in the past year.

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What teachers are saying, according to the report

“I would love to buy a home in a safe neighborhood where I work but have been priced out of the market even though I have 22 years in the field.”

“I had to give up my 2-bedroom apartment of 10 years to move in with a friend to maintain my cost of living.”

“We haven't moved the needle very far on some of these consistent themes,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association.

Though the challenges can feel overwhelming, many educators expressed hope that there are solutions, some of them legislative.

Staffing challenges

The survey found that 64 percent of educators said the classroom teacher shortage in their schools is worse this year than in previous years. Though that’s down from last year’s 85 percent, the actual shortage numbers have gotten worse, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

Fifteen percent of all teaching positions and 20 percent of all specialized positions, including counselors, nurses, and social workers were unfilled at the beginning of the last school year. None of the state’s 178 school districts was fully staffed at the beginning of this school year.

Four out of five educators say the shortage of counselors, nurses, social workers, and other specialized support positions is worse than in previous years.

“My heart and soul are in this profession. I love teaching. I love my students, but the love of teaching is not enough to sustain the future of education in Colorado. We cannot afford to stand idly by as our schools lose passionate and skilled teachers due to burnout and frustration.”

Angel Givler, a literacy teacher in El Paso County

Multiple research studies show high turnover among educators has a negative impact on students.

 “Teachers will have to combine classes or significantly increase their class size, and then that just dominoes. you have more grading, more planning, more conferences,” said Baca-Oehlert.

Why some are considering leaving teaching, according to the report

"Unrealistic expectations and constant criticism being the basis of the job"

"High number of students/not enough support for behavior issues"

"Too much micromanaging. It's all about test scores even in kindergarten"

"Complete lack of admin support leading to mental health and safety issues"

"Detrimental admin that leads to safety concerns"

"Not being heard when we are begging for help"

"Inadequate resources to do the job"

School funding

Even though average per pupil spending is at its highest level of $10,579, Colorado still spends well below the national average.

Schools have lost about $10 billion in funding over the last 14 years as a result of a mechanism state lawmakers use to send less money to schools than they were constitutionally required to fund other areas of the state budget. That has had negative impacts on every aspect of schools: pay, the educator shortage, student outcomes, and more, according to the report.

Decades of underfunding have had an impact on schools, especially rural schools. Lisa Danos, a librarian teacher at Gunnison High School, said her school has had to implement more fees on families.

“If these families cannot afford to pay the cost of these fees, the children aren't able to take a class or participate in an extracurricular activity or sport,” she said.

Gov. Jared Polis has promised to eliminate that debt — called the budget stabilization factor — in schools. But even if lawmakers “fully fund” education next year, schools would only return Colorado to 1989 inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending. The report notes that in EdWeek's most recent analysis of school finance systems, Colorado ranked 43rd in the nation and received an “F.”

“While it's something we want to applaud that we're getting out of the budget stabilization factor, we have a long way to go knowing that it's 2023 and we will be at 1989 funding levels,” said Baca-Oehlert.

The average teacher salary is about $63,000 a year.

Collective bargaining

In Colorado, school districts can but don’t have to engage in collective bargaining or have contracts with unions. The survey shows nearly 90 percent of respondents said they believe educators should have a statutory right to engage in collective bargaining.

The average starting teacher salary in districts with collective bargaining agreements is $47,988, which is $7,677 more than in districts without union contracts. Districts with union contracts also won pay increases of 14 percent compared to 11 percent in districts without agreements. The average starting teacher pay in union districts was 19 percent higher than in non-union districts.

Still, the report said Colorado educators make about 37 percent less compared to other professionals with the same amount of education, citing research by the Economic Policy Institute.  

Politicization of schools

The recent trends of politicization and culture wars are impacting what some Colorado students are learning.

More than half of teachers said that politically divisive issues have significantly or somewhat affected their jobs, and nearly a third felt the need to change their curriculum based on the current political climate, including censoring curriculum and eliminating books.

Of respondents who said they are considering leaving teaching, nearly a third said one of their top reasons for leaving would be attacks on the curriculum.

Givler said the political attacks in El Paso County on teachers are taking an immense toll.

“They're (school board members) calling for parents to come into our classrooms and find us ‘being bad,’ we’re CORA’d all the time — our emails —  and it doesn't feel like there's any support from the people that should be making the choices for education, whether that's at the school board level here locally, or with our politicians.”

She said one group has circulated an extensive list of 1,400 books that the group has deemed obscene or inappropriate dealing with themes relating to LGBTQ people, racism, and segregation. 

“How I would know whether I'm teaching something appropriate or not is best guess, and it's really disconcerting,” said Givler.

What teachers are saying, according to the report

“I have been more cautious about what we discuss in class. This has resulted in not answering some student questions”

“I fear repercussions for things I've always done that are engaging for students.”

Accountability

As a legislative task force considers improvements to the school accountability system, among educators surveyed, just 4 percent trust the current system that relies heavily on standardized tests as one indicator.

“People feel like they don't have a lot of autonomy, they don't have a lot of say over their professional lives,” said Baca-Oehlert. “And then that leads to people feeling demoralized and not wanting to stay or enter into the profession.”

She said educators want more of a voice in the design and implementation of a new accountability system.

Educators point to research that raises doubts about the heavy reliance on such tests. One reason is research shows a strong correlation between standardized test scores and family income.  Teachers are concerned that pressure to boost test scores has narrowed the curriculum and left little time for experiential learning and exploring real-world issues.

Safety

Two-thirds of educators are “very” or “somewhat worried” about a school shooting at their school. About 77 percent said that if educators were allowed to carry firearms, they would feel less safe – up from last year.

Increasingly, educators don’t feel safe in their classrooms. A similar CEA survey in 2022 revealed a third of respondents experienced physical abuse by a student in the two years before taking the survey.

“Many of our educators do not feel a sense of safety in our schools,” said Nicole Alvarado, a high school counselor in the Poudre School District.  “It's often not a matter of if, but when a threat to your physical safety will be made, and when some of our educators can make more working at their local Costco than they can supporting the next generation, what's keeping them in this profession?

Seventy percent of respondents in this year’s survey said students’ mental health had significantly worsened over the past few years. Two-thirds reported a substantial deterioration in their own mental health during the same period.

“We just simply don't have the staff to support those student needs,” said Baca-Oehlert.  “That weighs a lot on our educators, and I really think we hear that it's one of the things that impacts their own mental health.”

Educators call for more robust mental health support for students. They also made a note in this year’s report about the influence on student behavior that socio-economic stress plays. Skyrocketing housing costs and an underfunded social safety net play a role in exacerbating safety challenges in schools, the report’s authors stated.

Solutions

The report outlines several policy solutions for this year’s legislative session. The biggest is enacting Polis’ promise to fund schools to the minimum amount required by the state constitution by eliminating the yearly budget shortfall for schools.

Educators are asking for lawmakers to develop long-term system-wide solutions to sustainably fund public schools and not make significant changes to the way Colorado funds schools without new revenue to ensure an equitably funded system.

The agenda also includes supporting bills on protecting educator autonomy and public workers’ rights, preventing book bans and preserving students' freedom to read, bills to address the housing supply, maintaining and increasing state funding for school breakfast and lunch programs, and stronger gun safety regulations.

“We have some significant challenges that we are facing as educators in public education, but there are solutions,” Baca-Oehlert said. “There are things that are within our grasp that we can work on together.”

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