Colorado Considers Bills Tackling Expected Teacher Shortage

Published May 10, 2017

One-third of Colorado’s more than 53,000 public school teachers will reach retirement eligibility in the next five years, and enrollment and graduation rates for traditional teacher-education programs are declining.

Graduation from teacher-preparation programs decreased by 2.2 percent for the 2015–16 academic year, the sixth straight year for which completion rates have dropped, the Colorado Department of Higher Education reported in December 2016. In 2010, 3,274 students earned their teaching credentials through such traditional programs, and that number declined by more than 24 percent, to 2,472, in 2016.

Proposed Legislation

State Rep. Barbara McLachlan (D-Durango) introduced House Bill 1003, which would require the state Departments of Education and Higher Education to collaborate with schools, districts, and interest groups to determine what makes hiring teachers difficult and why teachers leave the profession.

State Rep. James Wilson (R-Salida) introduced House Bill 1178 to allow “a rural school district to hire a non-licensed person to fill a vacant licensed teacher position if, after trying to fill the position with a licensed teacher, the board of education of the district passes a resolution declaring a critical shortage of licensed teachers,” the bill states.

State Rep. John Becker (R-Fort Morgan) introduced House Bill 1176 to enable retired public education employees to return to work without adversely affecting their retirement benefits.

As of early April, HB 1003 had passed the House and been referred to the Senate. Wilson withdrew HB 1178 amid low support. HB 1176 also passed the full House.

Concerns ‘Are Not New’

Ross Izard, a senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, says the claims of a teacher shortage ignore many potential sources of new teachers. 

“Concerns about teacher shortages are not new, and it’s important to note the limitations of the most frequently cited research on the topic in Colorado,” Izard said. “Analyses that look only at the number of students in traditional teacher preparation courses exclude many other potential hiring sources for school districts, such as teachers moving here from out of state—particularly important given the high number of people migrating to Colorado each year; Colorado students who choose to complete their educator-prep programs out of state; and teachers coming from various professional backgrounds into Colorado’s growing charter sector who may or may not pursue a teaching license.”

Steady Student-Teacher Ratio

Izard says there are several ways to solve teacher shortage problems. 

“Teacher shortages are primarily a problem when the number of teachers in the state cannot keep pace with enrollment growth, but Colorado’s statewide pupil-teacher ratios haven’t changed radically in recent years, rising only slightly from 17.3 in 2010–11 to 17.53 in 2015–16,” Izard said. “However, these admittedly rough figures can mask significant hiring problems in certain districts, particularly those located in rural areas of the state. These districts certainly face many challenges when it comes to staffing.

“We can use technology to allow teachers to effectively teach larger numbers of students in nontraditional ways, using blended learning or other techniques,” Izard said. “We could adopt a private school choice program that would allow students to access high-quality education in the private sector using tuition assistance, which would provide a release valve of sorts to districts with high populations of disadvantaged students and/or rapidly increasing enrollment.”

‘A Unionized, Bureaucratic Mess’

Larry Sand, a former teacher and current president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, says teaching should be treated the same as any other profession.

“Teaching needs to become an honest-to-God profession, not a unionized, bureaucratic mess,” Sand said. “The market has a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff. It works in the business world, and there is no reason it can’t in education also.”

Izard says teachers should be rewarded for their work, not just the number of years in the job.

“We could take steps to make the teaching profession more attractive for new teachers,” Izard said. “One of the best ways to do this would be to realign our teacher pay systems to compensate teachers for performance rather than longevity. That way, potential teachers wouldn’t feel discouraged by rigid pay systems under which they often need the better part of a decade to work their way up to a decent salary. Instead, they could see a high salary much more quickly if they work hard and demonstrate strong performance in the classroom.”

Harry Painter ([email protected]) writes from Brooklyn, New York.