State unveils plan to tackle Colorado teacher shortage, including exploring ways to boost pay

More than 30 strategies are spelled out, ranging from student loan forgiveness and housing incentives to coming up with extra pay to attract educators to stretched-thin rural areas.

A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class in 2014. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class in 2014. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)
A teacher at DSST Cole High in Denver greets her students on the first day of class in 2014. (Nicholas Garcia/Chalkbeat)

By Eric GorskiChalkbeat 

To combat a shortage of teachers in Colorado, state education officials on Friday unveiled a sweeping strategic plan proposing ways to attract, keep and better pay educators.

More than 30 strategies are spelled out, ranging from student loan forgiveness and housing incentives to coming up with extra pay to attract educators to stretched-thin rural areas.

An early draft floated one bold possibility — setting a minimum salary for educators in Colorado tied to the cost of living. The final plan released Friday said the state should “explore” that possibility, but it stopped short of recommending legislation to establish it.

In response to legislation passed this year, officials from the state departments of education and higher education were required to deliver to lawmakers by Friday a report recommending steps to tackle the teacher shortage problem in Colorado. What happens next rests largely in the hands of state lawmakers, who return to the Capitol next month.

“We know that educators make all other professions possible, and attracting top talent to our school districts, especially in rural areas, is a must,” Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, said in a statement. “We look forward to engaging in policy conversations to advance solutions that will support our teachers, students, and communities.”

Cost is a significant barrier to seeing through the plan’s vision, which the departments acknowledge. Funding public education in Colorado is a perpetual challenge, and about two-thirds of the proposed strategies carry what the plan describes as a “high” to “moderate to high” price tag. Specific cost estimates were not cited.

Strategies to boost teacher pay and benefits are among the most expensive pieces of the plan. Along with looking at setting minimum salary for teacher and early child care providers, the departments are urging lawmakers to consider incentives for educators who teach in hard-to-staff districts and content areas, including STEM and special education.

Another possible move: establishing subsidies for early child care and education businesses to increase the salaries and wages of early child care providers. In Colorado and other states, low pay is a barrier to providing quality and accessible child care.

Not all parts of the state lack teachers, and some grade levels and content areas have no shortage of job-seekers. State officials said the shortage is exacerbated in early childhood education and care, and subjects such as mathematics, science, special education, world languages and art/music/drama, as well as in urban and rural areas.

The state notes that several recommendations would require community and education partnerships — including one to expand “grow your own” educator or teacher residency programs — while some could be put into practice on a statewide level.

“We’re already seeing creative community solutions in supporting educators, and we’ll continue to rely on these partnerships as we look to implement high-impact recommendations,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement. “Now that we’ve collected all of this valuable feedback from communities around the state, I look forward to continuing the discussion with our legislature, state board, districts, and educator preparation programs.”

Some of the state’s proposals have found success elsewhere. A recent study found that offering bonuses or loan forgiveness to teachers in positions that are hard to staff can prove effective.

State officials also released an accompanying report detailing the scope of teacher shortage issue in Colorado and other states.

Since 2010, there’s been a 24 percent drop in graduates from the traditional teacher prep programs at Colorado’s colleges and universities. There’s also been a 23 percent drop in enrollment to those programs.

Alternative programs, such as residency programs, have seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment. However, those programs produce far fewer teachers than traditional programs and can’t keep up with demand. According to the state department of education, the state’s public schools employ more than 53,000 teachers.

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