Bipartisan Colorado Legislature bill aims to tackle state’s teacher shortage

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AURORA | It’s no secret one of the biggest issues facing school districts both big and small across the state is teacher shortages. But knowing what the problem is, and figuring out how to fix it, are two separate things entirely.

A bipartisan bill currently working its way through the Colorado Legislature aims to find solutions to the quandary. House Bill 1003 would create a study group composed of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, Colorado Department of Education, school districts, teachers unions, charter school groups, business leaders and anyone else who might be able to help solve the problem.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, passed out of the state House March 31 with only one Republican siding with the Democratic majority. It’s currently assigned to the state Senate’s education committee, a good indication that at least some of the Republican-controlled Senate might back the bill. Bills destined to die by the majority are generally sent to the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, is a vocal supporter of the bill and said it could have a positive effect for both urban and rural school districts.

“It will help with secondary education, it will help with math and science education. We’re short 3,000 teachers so this is going to help with shortages across the state,” Buckner said. “We need to entice more kids to go to college and prepare for being a teacher. There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit, a lot of people we can encourage to become teachers.”

The problem facing the state isn’t just the current shortage of teachers to fill jobs today. The number of qualified teachers graduating from Colorado institutions of higher education has been slashed by nearly 25 percent in the past six years. In the last academic year, slightly less than 2,500 students finished an educator preparation program at a traditional college or university, according to a CDHE report. Nearly another 800 people completed an educator program through an alternative agency, including online providers.

Harry Bull, superintendent of Cherry Creek School District, knows the problem first-hand. Even with the reputation as one of the best employers around, Bull said the district is having to go outside of the state to find recruits. And even when they’re successful in luring teachers into the district, it’s only a handful and not enough to fill every vacancy.

“We’re also working really hard to identify kids who have an interest (in teaching) and make our connections with them before they leave (the school district). But that’s a handful of kids. The issue that I think that’s going to have to be addressed at some point is the state and national narrative on K-12 education,” Bull said.

“If I was a kid and I listened to the unreasonable commentaires about K-12 public education, why as a young adult would I choose that as a profession? Beyond that … just look at the pay of teachers and what we’re asking teachers to do and the ever-complex nature of the job,” he added. “Teaching today is probably one of the most complex professions that exists and no one is willing to recognize that or do things to make it attractive to quality people.”

If the bill passes out of the Legislature and the study group is able to come up with solutions by the end of the year, it will still be up to state lawmakers to enact recommendations in 2018 and beyond. While Buckner said there will likely be steps that don’t require more spending on education, increasing teacher pay to bring in new teachers and keep them in the profession for decades will be a hard sell to lawmakers.

“I am concerned about that, I am really concerned. We could get great ideas back, but if we don’t have the money to enact it we might not be able to really address the issues,” Buckner said. “I don’t know what we can do about salaries right now. But this will help us look outside the box and find other areas we can work on. I think (the study) will be a great tool for the future as we work on this issue.”