Colorado educator survey illustrates an education system in ‘dire straits’
Educators are grappling with staffing shortages, respect and safety, according to a 2023 report from the Colorado Education Association
Colorado educators are feeling under stress, undervalued and unsafe, and the result is an education system that’s in “dire straits.”
Those are some of the main takeaways from the Colorado Education Association’s 2023 State of Education report. The association is the statewide labor union for public educators in Colorado with over 39,000 members across numerous local chapters including the Eagle County Education Association.
The annual report leverages data from public data, news articles and cited research as well as a survey of the association’s members conducted in the fall of 2022.
“None of the problems addressed here are new: educator pay is still too low, their workload is overwhelming, and educators still feel unsafe and disrespected in their schools,” wrote Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, in the report’s introduction. “But these long-standing systemic issues have been compounded and exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19 on all of our communities.”
For the past several years the national educator shortage has taken hold in Eagle County and Colorado, exacerbated by challenges with low teacher pay, high costs of living and the lack of affordable and attainable housing.
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According to the report: “By every measure, schools are dangerously and unsustainably understaffed.”
Based on the association’s survey of its members, 85% said the teacher/licensed educator shortage is “significantly or somewhat worse” than in previous years. Ninety percent reported the same of the educator support staff shortage, and 82% said the same of the substitute shortage.
In January of this year, Eagle County School District reported that it had 94 vacant positions, a number that was around 75 at the start of the school year in September, and 67 at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
Karen Kolibaba, a fifth-grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary School and the president of the Eagle County Education Association, said that teachers are feeling this shortage in several ways.
“Educator shortages have led to larger class sizes in some buildings, and many educators in Eagle County have to teach during their planning time. They are also feeling pressure to take on additional classes during their planning times, in order to be ‘team players’ or not let their building and students down,” Kolibaba said.
Plus, Kolibaba added that there is a higher level of “burnout due to consistent turnover.”
“Ideally, educators are able to fine-tune their instruction each year to meet the needs of the students in front of them. But with new colleagues being added so often, teams end up in survival mode without the ability to provide even better educational opportunities for students,” she said.
Part of this turnover and loss relates directly to the issue of teacher pay. Kolibaba said that right now, “Eagle County loses many educators within their first five years,” many to the private sector or higher-paying school districts.
The report emphasizes the challenge of teacher pay using several statistics, including:
- Colorado ranks No. 49 out of 51 in teacher pay across the country
- Colorado educators make 35.9% less compared to comparably educated professionals in Colorado
It also reported that, based on its membership survey, having too high of a workload and low pay were the top two reasons educators were considering leaving the education profession altogether.
In the current legislative session, there is one house bill — which recently passed the house — that aims to tackle this challenge. As proposed, it would expand the pool of student educators who qualify for state loan forgiveness, with the ultimate goal of getting more qualified teachers into classrooms.
Low teacher pay and burnout are key factors in educators feeling undervalued and disrespected. Sixty-three percent of the educators surveyed by the association in 2022 reported that “adequate pay and benefits was the most important factor to feel valued and respected as an educator.”
Aside from inadequate pay, the report emphasizes that the lack of respect is seen as educators’ voices are often left out of solutions, particularly in the legislative process. Thirty-four percent of educators reported in the survey that they felt valued by state elected officials.
The other way, the report states, is through the recent politicization of schools, with 21% reporting that “politically-motivated attacks on their curriculum or themselves” are leading them to consider leaving the profession.
Kolibaba reported that educators have experienced only a “little polarization” in local schools, emphasizing specifically the district’s prioritization of equity as well as the topic of growth and development (or sex education).
In addition to breeding a feeling of disrespect, the report states that this politicization is “having a deleterious effect on educators,” particularly as it relates to safety and mental health.
The report looked at three specific aspects of educator safety: mental health, proactive protection of LGBTQ educators and students, and gun violence prevention.
The report states that 67% of educators surveyed reported being “very or somewhat worried” about a mass shooting at their school. Looking at solutions, increased funding and resources for mental health counseling in schools and communities, changes to school discipline policies, and added security to buildings were the top three ways educators believed gun violence incidences in schools could be alleviated.
The report also reported through survey results that many Colorado LGBTQ+ educators do not feel safe or supported in school environments, with 85% reporting not being openly “out” in their school communities and 80% reported working in a school without gender-inclusive bathrooms for students.
The topic of educator and broader school safety has become more salient following the pandemic. Other reports, including the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, have reported significant impacts on students’ behavior, social-emotional development and engagement as a result of the pandemic.
In December, Katie Jarnot, Eagle County School District’s assistant superintendent, told the Vail Daily that there is a “stark difference between pre-and post-pandemic data” around its high school’s discipline data, truancy data, student perception surveys and senior exit surveys. As a result, she added that the principals at both Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain high schools have “renormed” discipline procedures.
It’s also a topic that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has announced as a priority. In his budget proposal, his administration proposed a new Office of School Safety — which lawmakers would have to approve — to address school safety by adding resources and implementing a more coordinated approach to school safety. In December, Baca-Oehlert told the Vail Daily that this proposal could have an “absolute impact on educator recruitment and retention.”
Mental health services and resources are included in Polis’ proposal, as well as identified as an area of need around educator safety in the Colorado Education Association’s report.
“In the majority of our schools, current mental health support is inadequate: if schools have counselors, their caseloads are way too large, and given the greater educator shortage, school psychologists and counselors often pull double duty and are asked to do testing or other activities with students,” the report states.
The local school district has worked to address mental health through its partnerships with local nonprofits, including Your Hope Center, which provides school-based clinicians at all the district’s schools, as well as organizations like SpeakUp ReachOut and more. However, continuing to grow the mental health supports for students and teachers would address this topic of safety.
Kolibaba said the lack of mental health supports for students is a “massive part of our safety concerns” and one that she felt could be addressed by “ensuring that we have a comprehensive support system of mental health supports.”
“With the help of additional mental health professionals, we could focus on continued growth around positive behavior supports, bullying prevention, and addressing suicide awareness and intervention,” Kolibaba added.
While she said the resources that have been added are helpful, Kolibaba said “our students seem to need more significant support now more than ever.”
The challenge with the lack of resources and “consistent mental health professionals in our schools” is that “students and educators are left to tackle complex mental health needs on our own,” she added.
In getting into solutions, the report states that Colorado’s public education system is at a “crisis point” due to these persisting challenges. And all fingers point to one thing hindering solutions.
All roads lead to funding
“All of these vital, unmet needs in schools stem from the inadequate funding formula in Colorado,” Kolibaba said.
Part of the challenge is rooted in the state’s budget stabilization factor, which on a state level has resulted in over $10 billion in lost revenue between 2010 and 2023 (and around $82 million in lost funding for the Eagle County School District).
The report calls the systematic underfunding of public education in Colorado “financial neglect” that is impacting “every part of our educators’ and students’ lives.”
In local schools, Kolibaba added that there are a few ways that Eagle County’s teachers are feeling the lack of state funding. The first is the lack of mental health services, lack of trained educators, support for students outside of general education, and missed opportunities for outside enrichment (like field trips that have become more cost prohibitive).
“With more funding, we could have more para-professionals that work with students in general education classrooms. They could support teachers and students so each student receives the individualized instruction they deserve to continue growing and thriving,” Kolibaba said.
More resources, she added, could help provide more support and professional development — particularly around classroom management and understanding child development — as “a large percentage of our educators have taken alternative pathways to their position.”
All of the topics addressed in the Colorado Education Association’s annual report have a solution rooted in securing more funding for public schools in the state. Ninety percent of its members surveyed said that “an increase in and stabilization of school funding” was a priority.
“Our local school board has been making difficult decisions to prioritize what’s best for our students with the small amount of funding we’re allotted,” Kolibaba said. “Every year, or the past 14 years, educators have been asked to do more with less. If our goal is student improvement, it’s time for our legislators to live up to their promises and provide the funding our educators need to do their best for our students.”