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Kiersten Macreery, a third grade teacher for Park County School District, leads a chant on the first day of a teacher strike in Fairplay.

Kiersten Macreery, a third grade teacher for Park County School District, leads a chant on the first day of a teacher strike in Fairplay.

Some Colorado teachers could earn more waiting tables. Here’s how lawmakers hope to change that.

Charles Cody Childers could make more money teaching in his native West Virginia. He could make more money by driving 45 minutes to teach in a New Mexico school. He could even make more money waiting tables.

Childers believes low pay, especially in rural districts like Montezuma-Cortez in southwest Colorado, where he teaches middle school language arts, is a major factor in the state’s teacher shortage and ultimately puts student learning at risk.

“Thankfully I’m good at my job,” said Childers, who is working to get his license through an alternative program. “Anyone could have gotten picked up with my credentials. I got put in front of 98 kids with two weeks of subbing experience.”

Stories like these are one reason educator pay is finally on the agenda at the Colorado General Assembly. Traditionally lawmakers have seen teacher salaries as a local issue, one on which the legislature could have only indirect impact by, for example, increasing overall school funding. Unlike many states, Colorado has no statewide teacher salary schedule, and local districts set pay rates.

Meanwhile, Colorado funds K-12 education at roughly $2,900 below the national average when regional cost differences are taken into account, and ranks 31st for teacher pay, according to figures collected by the National Education Association. When compared to other jobs that require a college degree, Colorado teacher pay is among the least competitive in the country. Low pay is also one reason Colorado has more inexperienced teachers than most other states.

This year, the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has put educator pay at the top of its legislative agenda, even suggesting there could be widespread teacher walkouts if lawmakers don’t act. The union is backing a bill that would create a dedicated state fund that cash-strapped districts could tap to raise teacher pay.

That proposal is one of three bills in the legislature this year that take very different approaches to the problem. None of them present a comprehensive solution.

The Educator Pay Raise Fund bill, sponsored by Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and state Sen. Jessie Danielson of Arvada, both Democrats, would set aside money generated by state lands — $15 million to start — and allow districts that want to raise teacher and other employee pay to apply for that money. Districts would have to commit to raising teacher pay to at least $40,000 and the pay of hourly employees to at least $15 an hour — or more, depending on a cost-of-living factor.

This adjustment for cost of living is a critical component that would allow more districts to qualify for funding, not just those with the lowest teacher pay in the state. And districts would have to commit to gradually taking over this new budget obligation. The state would only cover the full cost in the first year.

Danielson said she expects more demand than the fund can accommodate. She called it a “first step,” but an important one.

“For years, parents, teachers, the community have come to me and said we need to do something about teacher pay,” she said. “My position is: It’s time. I’m tired of saying there is nothing we can do.”

Childers hopes such a fund could serve as an incentive to get voters in his community to raise taxes for teacher pay, something they’ve consistently refused to do so far. It’s not a substitute for increasing school funding overall, he said, but it would guarantee that teachers see some benefit.

In a recent education committee hearing, state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, urged lawmakers to work harder to increase overall education funding if they want to raise teacher pay. This year, to meet other budget priorities, Colorado expects to hold back $520 million that the state constitution says should go to K-12 education. This amount, known as the budget stabilization factor, has added up to more than $8 billion since the Great Recession.

Despite this ongoing shortfall, school funding and teacher pay have been going up in recent years, with districts around the state approving raises. But in many cases, these raises haven’t kept pace with the rising cost of living. And pay varies dramatically around the state, from an average of $78,000 in the affluent Boulder Valley district to just more than $32,000 in some small rural districts. More than a third of Colorado school districts — mostly small, rural ones — have average teacher salaries of less than $40,000 a year, and 85% of Colorado’s districts have average teacher salaries under $50,000.

The Colorado Association of School Boards hasn’t taken a position yet on the educator pay fund proposal, but Matt Cook, director of public policy and advocacy, said members have concerns about the sustainability of the proposal.

“Instead of another piecemeal approach, they would really like a comprehensive solution on school finance,” he said. “We’re not really supporting grant programs this year. Either pay for it, or don’t.”

Two other bills would raise pay for teachers who receive ratings of “highly effective,” who account for almost half of the state’s 53,000 educators.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, wants to set aside $50 million for these teachers. His Bonuses for Highly Effective Teachers bill, which he also ran last year, would give each school district and charter school $20,850 per teacher that could be turned into bonuses for those with high ratings.

And state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Brighton Republican, and state Rep. Bri Buentello, a Pueblo Democrat and teacher, are sponsoring a Highly Effective Teachers and Low-performing Schools bill, which would distribute $4 million so that school districts and charter schools could create bonuses to attract strong teachers to schools with persistent low test scores.

These bills represent a different philosophical approach: rewarding the teachers whom policymakers believe are making the greatest difference for students.

“We should pay great teachers more,” Lundeen said. “We should give a bonus to those teachers who are judged by the system we have today as highly effective.”

Both of these bills have been sent to what are known as “kill” committees — where bills often die for partisan reasons — rather than to the Senate Education Committee.

Sarah Seaman, a math teacher at DSST: Conservatory Green, earns more under her charter network’s performance-based pay system than she would on Denver Public Schools’ salary schedule, which is more closely tied to longevity and education credits. She sees bonuses as a complicated issue.

DSST’s performance pay system “does make us stressed, but it also makes us really focused on student growth,” she said.

When she studied Colorado’s teacher evaluation system through the Teach Plus Fellows program, she talked to some teachers who didn’t see much reason to strive for the highest rating because their pay wouldn’t change. In that regard, a bonus system could encourage more teachers to work on their craft.

But bonus systems also raise questions of fairness, she said. Teacher evaluations are closely tied to test scores, and students in more affluent schools tend to have better test scores.

“It doesn’t address the problem that we don’t have the resources, that we can’t put a highly qualified teacher in every classroom, or that we don’t have teachers who look like our students or share their experiences,” Seaman said.