English teacher Lori Kester answers a question from a student in her class at Centennial School In San Luis, Colorado. (John McEvoy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

When I read reports last month of a Colorado Education Association survey, my response was similar to reacting to a red flag warning, a level-purple COVID-19 alert, and an extreme avalanche warning combined. Alarm and worry.  

The survey found that 40% of the educator union’s licensed-teacher members are considering leaving the profession after the 2020-21 school year.

Forty percent. That is a shocking statistic and a catastrophe in the making if even a tiny fraction of those teachers leave their roles.  

Lisa Konrad

Our teachers, the bedrock of our society and the people shaping the future leaders of our great state, are reaching a breaking point.  They are struggling and feel their voices are not being heard.  According to the survey, the top concerns for these teachers were unmanageable workloads, unsafe working conditions and low pay.

In this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have placed our teachers in very difficult situations.  Even before most teachers were vaccinated, many were asked to re-enter the classroom, coming into contact with all sorts of variables outside of their control.  Students attending sports and events outside of school, then coming into class and later testing positive, have caused entire classes and teachers to have to quarantine.

Also in this year of herculean flexibility, teachers have been asked to develop hybrid teaching models, then transition to full in-person learning, and maybe move back and forth again based on COVID numbers in the community.  

Aside from the extraordinary pressures teachers face during this school year, in the teaching community it is well known that teachers buy some of their own supplies, furniture, treats and gifts for kids.  A friend of mine taught in an at-risk school, and said it was common for teachers there to make sure kids were fed before leaving for the day and would also buy them clothes and shoes on occasion. Many of them did this more than once. 

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Many teachers who grew up in Colorado want to continue to call the state home, but with teacher wages what they are, it is too expensive for many to live here. Some work another job in addition to teaching and hold coaching positions to afford expenses.  CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert has talked of Colorado teachers living in their cars or relying on free and reduced-price lunch for their own children.  

But one of the biggest new pressures placed on teachers is that now they are held largely responsible for dealing with students’ mental health in their classrooms. The focus on mental health is an improvement, but this year many teachers have struggled with the anxiety of being in a classroom and catching COVID, while simultaneously being expected to give students all the support they need.  Most teachers want to do this but people are burning out.  

So how do we compensate teachers fairly for all of their work and influence in the future of our Colorado communities?  Unfortunately, K-12 Colorado public school funding is essentially crippled.  Schools mainly get their funding through a combination of local property taxes and state revenues, but because of tax structures, the bulk currently comes from the state.  

After the state goes through the contortions of dealing with a variety of conflicting constitutional fiscal requirements, we’ll be lucky if Colorado has anything left to invest in schools and teachers.

This is where you, the Colorado citizen, come in.  It is past time to step up and vote to increase taxes to fund public education.  It is up to you, the voter, to vote yes when such proposals hit the ballot again.

It’s not enough to participate in the excruciating ritual of community fundraising for Colorado public education.  This is not sustainable or equitable.  Adding insult to injury, voters passed the legalization of marijuana in 2012, but it is a misperception that most of the marijuana tax revenue goes to K-12 education.

We’re better than this, Colorado!  We can’t expect to continue to have a highly educated population and workforce if we don’t fund our education system.  We will have teachers who get their degrees here move to neighboring states to teach because the wages are higher.  

Equity and inclusion starts with a guaranteed and well-funded public education with happy teachers who are compensated fairly.  If we don’t fix this now, who will be our hope and inspiration leading us into the future?

Lisa Konrad is a Littleton Public Schools parent and past president of the Wilder Elementary School PTO.

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @konrad_lisa