Here’s how Colorado lawmakers are spending $10 million to reduce the teacher shortage

The Colorado State Capitol, Feb. 14, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

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By Erica MeltzerChalkbeat

One of the pressing education issues that Colorado lawmakers set out to tackle this session was the so-called teacher shortage. Colorado faces the same shortages of science and math teachers that other states do. Rural districts, where salaries are often low, have a hard time hiring even elementary school teachers. At the same time, the number of students entering educator preparation programs has declined 24 percent in the last five years, and many new teachers wash out of the profession in their first five years.

The 2018-19 budget includes $10 million to chip away at these problems. These bills make $3 million available as grants to school districts and charter schools to craft their own incentives and $2 million to develop cooperative programs between school districts, charter schools, and teacher preparation programs. They also make financial assistance available to student teachers and those just starting out in exchange for commitments to remain with a district for a certain amount of time.

Stephanie Aragon, who studies these issues for Education Commission of the States, said Colorado is following the path laid out by research on teacher recruitment and retention. What will matter is how these programs are implemented and sustained over time, she said.

There are additional steps Colorado could take, Aragon said, including accepting without restriction licenses from other states. More nuanced evaluation systems and more targeted training opportunities could also help keep teachers in the field, she said.

“There’s a common narrative that teachers don’t enter the profession for the money, and that’s true,” she said. “But if there are incentives to keep teachers in the profession and reward excellent teachers and opportunities for advancement, that might help keep someone in the profession.”  

Many of the bills came late in the session, reflecting behind-the-scenes negotiations to line up bipartisan support, and some promising ideas didn’t make the cut. The bills also don’t touch on teacher pay.

“These bills are helpful, but it’s probably not enough,” said Dale McCall, executive director of the Colorado BOCES Association, which represents the educational cooperatives that serve small districts around the state.

McCall testified in support of many of the bills, but said they don’t add up to a solution.

“We’re going to have to work on this over time,” he said.

Three bills provide money to support a “grow your own” teacher approach. This strategy has shown promise in other states, and rural districts in particular are excited about these bills.

  • One provides a $10,000 fellowship for up to 100 student teachers a year in rural districts, with the cost to be split between the state and their colleges. As long as they work in the same district for at least two years after graduation, they don’t have to pay the money back. The target audience for these fellowships is students from rural communities attending local colleges, not urban students who want to give rural life a try. (Status: Passed the House, awaiting Senate approval)
  • One provides a $6,000 stipend for up to 60 people a year. Recipients could be teachers in rural districts pursuing additional education or an alternative pathway to certification. Participants would have to commit to teaching in a rural district for at least three years. The House version also makes the stipend available to service providers who work in schools, like speech pathologists and occupational therapists. (Status: In conference committee to resolve differences between the Senate and House versions)
  • One requires the state to develop a “grown your own” program that allows student teachers in their final year to be teachers of record – that is, the primary, official teacher – in their classroom, with the school district paying them a salary, as well as the cost of their final 36 credit hours. The state would make money available to districts to offset some of the costs for up to 50 students a year. Participants would agree to stay with that school for at least three years after graduation. (Status: Passed the House, with initial approval in the Senate)

Two bills would make money available for institutions to try new ideas.

  • One bill sets aside $3 million for grants to school districts and charter schools that have an idea for keeping more teachers. The Colorado Department of Education would have to evaluate the effectiveness of the grants and report back to the legislature. The program expires in 2022. (Status: Passed the House and Senate)
  • Another sets aside $2 million for the Colorado Department of Higher Education to make grants for cooperative efforts between school districts, charter schools, educator preparation programs, alternative certification programs, and boards of cooperative educational services. These could include teacher residency programs, teacher training for paraprofessionals and students of districts that have a hard time filling positions, or better mentoring and supervision of new teachers. (Status: Signed by the governor)

Some bills seek to make it easier for teachers moving here to get licensed in Colorado.

  • One exempts military spouses from the requirement to have three years of continuous teaching in another state to qualify for a license in Colorado. Instead, they can get licensed if they can demonstrate three years of experience within the last seven years. (Status: Signed by the governor)
  • Another gives the same exemption to any teacher arriving from out of state. This bill from state Sen. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, started as a much broader exemption that would have allowed districts to hire unlicensed teachers, but he essentially made it a different bill to get it through the House. (Status: Signed by the governor)
  • The Colorado Department of Education is also taking administrative steps to make it easier for out-of-state teachers to get licensed here.

One bill addresses a seemingly small barrier that can derail student teachers.

  • This proposal would create a single background check process for student teachers. Right now, each district has its own background check process, and minor offenses that aren’t a problem in some districts can prevent student teachers from working in others. Educators say the cost of repeated background checks with uncertain outcomes prevents some students from finishing their teaching programs. (Status: Passed the Senate, with initial approval in the House)

One bill hopes to figure out what makes teachers stick around and share it. 

  • This proposal provides $600,000 to expand existing teacher residency programs as a pilot project, with a directive to identify which elements make them effective. Teachers, school administrators, and people who teach teachers are all excited about the residency model, in which new teachers get additional support and coaching as part of a cohort. Research seems to suggest that teachers who go through residency are more likely to stay in the profession. (Status: Passed the House and Senate)

Some ideas died on the vine.

  • A bill that would have expanded an existing loan forgiveness program and aimed it at hard-to-fill positions in certain subjects or geographic regions was killed in the Senate Finance Committee early in the session. It would have forgiven up to $5,000 a year in loans for up to five years for as many as 100 educators. Legislative analysts put the cost at around $2.5 million a year by 2022. (Status: Postponed indefinitely by Senate Finance Committee)
  • Another would have created a school leadership pilot program to provide training to principals with a focus on creating a positive school culture that would encourage teachers to stay. (Status: Postponed indefinitely by Senate State Affairs after passing the House)

Read more about the politics behind the teacher shortage bills.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.