Will three bills adequately address Colorado’s educator shortage?
Or are they just skirting around the state’s real problem when it comes to schools?
With the start of Colorado’s 2023 Legislative session in January came a batch of bill proposals aimed at creating solutions for some of education’s greatest challenges. And, at the top of that list is the educator shortage that has plagued local and national school districts in recent years.
So far, three bills have been proposed at the Capitol that take aim at addressing the educator shortage by reducing financial barriers as well as creating new pathways to licensure.
The recently released Colorado Education Association’s 2023 State of Education report illustrated an education system where “by every measure, schools are dangerously and unsustainably staffed.”
This shortage extends beyond just teachers, but to other school positions as well. A vast majority of educators surveyed in the association’s report said the educator, support staff and substitute shortages were worse than in previous years.
In January, Eagle County School District reported that it had 94 vacant positions. That number was around 75 at the start of the school year in September, and was 67 at the start of the 2021-22 school year.
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Each of the three bills currently making their way through the Colorado general assembly is attempting to target this shortage in different ways.
The first is a House bill designed to make it easier for teachers professionally licensed in other states to teach in Colorado. The bill passed the House on Feb. 9 and was introduced to the Senate on Feb. 13.
Essentially, if passed, the bill would create an agreement between Colorado and 10 other states where licensed teachers in these member states could easily transfer between the states included. All of the 10 states must vote to join the compact in order for it to take effect.
Rep. Meghan Lukens, one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in a press release that this would “get more high-quality teachers in classrooms by streamlining the process for teachers who are licensed in another state to obtain a teaching license in Colorado.”
The second House bill is targeted at reducing the financial barriers that future teachers face when entering the workforce by expanding the pool of student educators who qualify for state loan forgiveness and stipend programs. This bill passed the House on Feb. 2 and was introduced in the Senate on Feb. 6.
This builds upon a bill passed last year that added $52 million in federal pandemic relief funds for the student educator stipend program, the educator test stipend program, and the temporary educator loan forgiveness programs.
The third, a Senate bill, proposes a teacher degree apprenticeship program that would create an alternative route to obtaining a Colorado teacher license. The bill is still under consideration in the Senate after unanimously clearing its education committee.
The alternative pathway would be for students earning a bachelor’s degree in the subject they intend to teach to get a teaching license, creating a fourth option for the state to license a teacher.
Missing the mark
While these bills have received majority support thus far from the state’s legislators, whether they will actually solve the issue at hand is another topic.
“All of the bills could make small inroads to helping minimally alleviate shortages,” said Karen Kolibaba, a fifth-grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary School and the president of the Eagle County Education Association. “I do not think that these bills in and of themselves are adequate solutions. We cannot guarantee that this will increase the pool of educators or that those educators will be supported to continue making growth.”
Eagle County School District’s Superintendent Philip Qualman similarly said that none of these bills would serve as adequate solutions to Colorado’s educator shortage as “all three fail to acknowledge the elephant(s) in the room.”
These elephants, he added, are as follows: “Colorado lags behind almost every other state in paying teachers; (and) schools and teachers are increasingly politicized and often feel disrespected, targeted and unsafe.”
Specifically, on the house bill contemplating a compact between Colorado and 10 other states to transfer teaching licenses, Qualman said it has the potential to have an adverse effect and rather could “drain talent.”
“If Colorado remains towards the bottom of U.S. states in how we compensate educators, any program that makes it easier for teachers to transfer between states may result in a net loss for Colorado schools,” he said, adding that the problem is the bill “doesn’t do anything to address the high cost of housing or the comparatively low salary Colorado teachers earn.”
Of the other two bills, Qualman referred to them as nice gestures, but that their intended impact is unlikely to actualize.
In creating the apprenticeship program and alternative licensure pathway, Qualman said that while it would allow “schools to legally place individuals in teaching positions who are in the process of receiving the license,” which could add to the pool of people allowed to teach in schools, it also “means there will be teachers in front of kids with inadequate and/or incomplete training.”
Addressing school funding, and more specifically competitive pay for educators, is the true solution needed to help address the shortage, Kolibaba said.
“Until Colorado can pay their educators competitively, how can they expect to be a desired destination?” she said. “Over the past 14 years, I have seen more of my colleagues leave to teach in other states than colleagues join from other states.”
More specifically, Kolibaba added that she has seen over 25 educators leave in the last eight years to “go to midwestern states or back East, where they can be paid competitively.”
Qualman said that of the proposals to come forward this year, only one would be a huge step forward, if successful. That is Gov. Jared Polis promising to remove the Budget Stabilization Factor by the end of his current term.
However, there are actionable things the state could do, Qualman added. This included “define adequate funding for K-12 schools, as compared to other states” and “adhere to the definition of adequate funding so that Colorado schools are competitive in the hiring market.”
Until the state looks more seriously at funding, however, these proposed solutions to the educator shortage miss the mark. Kolibaba acknowledged that they are “steps in the right direction,” but said their helpfulness might only be realized once the state can competitively pay its teachers.
“Unfortunately, much of what we’ve seen come from our state leadership are short-term fixes for a long-term problem,” she said. “While we applaud all assistance to our education system, we can’t escape the fact that Colorado is in need of a large, systemic fix to sustainably provide our educators and students with a fully funded education. Anything less than that will inevitably fall short of what our students deserve.”