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Colorado’s rural schools need teachers and want lawmakers to help

Chelsea Wendorf, who visited La Veta as part of the rural teacher immersion program, helps in a third grade classroom.
Chelsea Wendorf, who visited La Veta as part of the rural teacher immersion program, helps in a third grade classroom.
Kathryn Allison

Bree Lesser, superintendent of the 209-student La Veta school district in southern Colorado, has been on the hunt for a high school math teacher for the last 18 months, and had no luck. Now she’s turning to the state legislature for help.

Lawmakers are considering three bills that supporters believe could help schools — especially those in rural areas like La Veta — combat a teacher shortage that is only expected to get worse.

“We can’t get people,” Kevin Shott, superintendent of the 200-student Deer Trail School District in eastern Colorado, told a legislative committee this week.

The problem is not in rural districts alone. Superintendents across the state have raised concern about a dearth of qualified applicants and possible contributing factors such as poor pay and skyrocketing housing costs.

“Some schools are waiting five years for someone to apply for a position,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former teacher who is sponsoring two bills to address the teacher shortage. “It’s horrible what’s happening around Colorado. And I don’t know why that is, but we need to take a look.”

McLachlan’s first bill, House Bill 1003, would commission the state’s education and higher education departments to work with the broader education community to develop a plan to tackle the shortage.

The shortage begins at Colorado’s traditional teacher prep programs, which are seeing fewer students enroll and complete the required training to become a licensed educator. While there has been an uptick in people completing alternative programs, it’s not enough. Compounding the problem: Colorado’s teacher workforce isn’t getting any younger. An estimated 5,500 Colorado teachers will retire this year.

The legislation calls for the departments to pinpoint the greatest needs and obstacles to hiring.

“I assume it’s money, but money isn’t always the fix in education,” McLachlan said, suggesting housing and an increasing workload could be other factors. “So let’s see what else there is.”

The departments also must identify why teachers are leaving the profession — many after just a few years in the classroom — and consider policy solutions to end that trend.

Also up for consideration are the state’s licensing policies — a topic that has vexed lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper for years.

“We need to take off our Democratic or Republican hats and ask what’s best for kids,” McLachlan said. “Let’s give up on some of the things that we know are going wrong.”

The issue of teacher licensure already is on the table at the Capitol.

The House Education Committee is expected to take up the issue Monday when it considers Rep. Jim Wilson’s House Bill 1178.

The Salida Republican’s bill would allow rural school districts to hire unlicensed teachers — with some conditions — if they can’t fill positions with licensed teachers.

“In rural districts, we know the people,” said Wilson, a former school superintendent. “If we have a community member that has a degree, they’re great with people, great with kids (and) they’ve served the community well,” they should be allowed to teach.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, fiercely opposes the bill.

“We believe students, no matter where they live, should have access to qualified teachers,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, the union’s vice president. “We’re very concerned that if we allow somebody to be in the classroom without a license, that wouldn’t be a good thing for students.”

For the union, a license signals a teacher has not only mastered a content area, but also other skills such as lesson planning, designing tests and classroom management.

The union argues that avenues already exist to hire teachers who have not attended a traditional teacher prep program, including hiring people with adjunct or emergency licenses.

An adjunct license, which lasts three years, allows a person to teach special subject matter such as advanced economics. An emergency license may be granted for one-year to any person who has a bachelor’s degree and is enrolled in but has not completed a teacher prep program.

Advocates for reforming the state’s licensing program argue there are too many bureaucratic hurdles and costs discouraging potential teachers.

The union is supporting a different bill it believes could provide rural schools more options in hiring.

House Bill 1176 would allow rural school districts to hire an unlimited number of retired teachers who would be able to collect their entire pension for the year.

Under current law, retired teachers who re-enter the classroom must forfeit a portion of their pension if they work more than 110 days. In limited cases, the restrictions kick in at 140 days. This law, which applies to everyone enrolled in the state’s pension program, is meant to restrict collecting a paycheck and pension at the same time. The typical working school year is 180 days, which means retired teachers who go back to the classroom could lose up to several months of their pension.

Lesser, the La Veta superintendent, told the House Finance Committee this week that nearly one-third of her staff are teachers who have come out of retirement, but none work full time because of the restrictions.

“It’s been a challenge for us to make sure there are people in the classroom who know what they’re doing,” she said as she described how she rotates substitute teachers and comes up with other workarounds. “This bill does solve problems for us.”

Officials from the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, have raised concerns about that the bill. They believe the bill could add an additional $85 million in unfunded liabilities to the program.

That’s a tiny number compared to the billions that are already unfunded. But the organization noted lawmakers are often critical of the pension program liabilities.

An independent legislative analysis suggests PERA’s liabilities would not increase substantially because fewer individuals would take advantage of the new flexibility.

“It’s a stopgap measure,” said McLauchlan, who is sponsoring House Bill 1176 with Rep. Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican. “But for some districts, that’s exactly what they need.”

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