Colorado student teachers will have access to up to $22,000 in stipends, and teachers who started their careers during the pandemic and have stuck with it can qualify for up to $5,000 in loan forgiveness, under a bill signed into law this week.
Removing Barriers to Educator Preparation dedicates $52 million from federal relief money to getting new teachers into the classroom and keeping them there during a time when schools across the state are grappling with shortages. Fewer teachers were entering the profession before the pandemic, and shortages have only worsened.
“A lot of teachers, people who want to be teachers, actually drop out of educator prep programs because they can’t afford it,” said state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat. “They can’t afford to work for free and pay tuition and not be able to hold down a second or third job.”
Kipp sponsored the bill with fellow Democrats state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, as well as Republican state Sen. Don Coram of Montrose.
The new law also covers the costs of test fees for eligible educators, and creates alternative ways of getting a license for teacher candidates who struggle to pass Praxis exams.
Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill to applause at a ceremony Thursday in which he also signed a slew of other education bills, including a major funding increase that lawmakers hope will lead to higher teacher pay and make staying in the classroom more attractive.
But first, state leaders want to make sure people who want to be teachers don’t give up on those dreams for financial reasons or because they can’t pass a standardized test.
Teacher candidates should start to receive stipends as soon as this fall. To be eligible, students must qualify for financial assistance because their expected family contribution is within 200% of the federal Pell-eligible family contribution. Students completing a 16-week student teacher program would qualify for $11,000, and those completing a 32-week program would qualify for $22,000.
According to a state fiscal analysis, $39 million over the next two years could support stipends for about 1,380 student teachers each year. Another $3 million is set aside to cover the cost of fees for licensing exams, as well as travel and lodging.
The new law sets aside $10 million for loan forgiveness for an estimated 2,000 teachers who started in the 2019-20 school year or more recently and are still in the classroom. Teachers in rural areas, in shortage areas like math and special education, and in high-poverty schools would get priority.
A more controversial provision of the law might be the one dealing with teacher licensure.
The law creates two new ways for prospective teachers to secure their license, rather than pass licensing tests that include core content areas. Every year, a large number of aspiring teachers fail these tests, and of those roughly 40% don’t try again. The numbers are higher for teacher candidates of color and those from low-income backgrounds.
The new law allows prospective teachers to submit a coursework review or a portfolio to show they are qualified to teach in a particular content area. Supporters say this is a critical step to build a more diverse teacher workforce. The Praxis test is like other standardized tests in that performance strongly correlates with socioeconomic factors. Some people who would make strong educators simply don’t test well, supporters of the new law said.
“We always tell kids that we want to give them a pathway to success, but we haven’t really done that for teachers,” Kipp said. “So what we’re doing is allowing multiple ways for teachers to prove they are competent, without relying on a high-stakes test.”
Numerous other states allow portfolios, performance assessments, and other measures of competency for teacher licensure. Colorado also regularly waives licensure requirements for charter school teachers.
The Colorado Department of Education will need to work with the state’s Department of Higher Education, teacher preparation programs, and school districts to develop the alternative pathways. The state processes about 20,000 first-time teacher applicants per year. The law says that no more than 1,000 per year can use the portfolio approach.
However, members of the State Board of Education have raised concerns that the changes to educator pathways and licensure will let unqualified teachers into the classroom, a concern that supporters say isn’t warranted. An elected body, the board is charged with implementing the new teacher pathways and could seek to place limits on how the portfolio approach is used.
The State Board of Education did not formally oppose the bill before Polis signed it. But several members, including Chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said they fear the bill places a large administrative burden on the state while opening the door for teachers who can’t show they have a comprehensive knowledge of key material.
“I don’t know how you demonstrate a deep understanding of math in a portfolio,” she said at an April board meeting.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.