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Simla Elementary School kindergarten teacher Holly Koehn works with students at the Big Sandy School Monday, February 25, 2019. Photo by Mark Reis

Colorado will continue to face a critical teacher shortage unless state leaders make good on their constitutional obligation to increase education funding, the head of Colorado’s largest teacher union says. 

“We’re at a crisis point that requires bold action by our legislature,” Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert told The Colorado Sun in an interview ahead of the 2022 legislative session, which begins Wednesday. 

The union is asking for a major investment in schools and it plans to lobby school districts to spend their share of any budgetary increase on improving teacher pay, Baca-Oehlert said.

The push to restore education funding and improve pay for teachers comes as lawmakers are gearing up to debate in the coming months just how much state money to give school districts next year.

Colorado lawmakers have not kept up with increasing education funding at the level the constitution requires, leaving districts shortchanged and holding a nearly $10 billion IOU from the state.

The state’s coffers are flush with cash at the moment – so much so that taxpayers are expected to receive refunds for each of the next three fiscal years. And the state also has billions more in one-time federal aid it received during the pandemic, giving state lawmakers extra flexibility with spending this year.

While the governor wants to chip away at the state’s funding obligation to school districts — known as the budget stabilization factor — with $150 million a year for the next three years, Republicans want to commit to paying the state’s entire annual funding obligation to schools going forward, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more each year.

MORE: A guide to how Amendment 23, “the budget stabilization factor” and “the negative factor” shape education spending in Colorado

Two Republican state senators, Barbara Kirkmeyer of Brighton and Paul Lundeen of Monument, have drafted a bill – set to be introduced this week – that aims to do just that, providing more than $700 million to wipe out the budget stabilization factor. 

“The bill itself would eliminate the budget stabilization factor, would take $723 million and completely buy it down,” Lundeen told the Colorado Sun.

Republicans believe the state can commit to that higher level of funding for education long term. Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, thinks that increasing property tax revenue amid appreciating real estate values will help the state get there. 

But Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, argues relying on increasing property tax revenues is less than ideal, and offered a more cautious approach.

“Getting rid of [the budget stabilization factor] for one year doesn’t do a whole lot of good,” he said. 

The constitution requires the state to increase base per-student school funding by at least the rate of inflation each year, so the funding obligation is a perennial problem.

“We have to get rid of it in a way that is sustainable so that it goes away forever,” Fenberg added.

The Republican proposal, if adopted, could have implications for Democrats’ spending priorities as more money for K-12 education means less money for other initiatives.

Baca-Oehlert described the governor’s plan as “a good start” but thinks state leaders can up that figure.

“We do believe that there is an ability to do more than $150 million this year,” Baca-Oehlert said. “And with a over half-a-billion-dollar hole in education funding, we think that doing more than $150 million would be just a better way to support our struggling schools and students in this time of significant need.”

Teacher shortage hits districts

Whatever lawmakers decide, Baca-Oehlert worries that without substantial new funding schools will struggle to recruit new teachers and keep them in classrooms. 

“Our districts need an ability to attract people to the profession, but also to retain them,” she said. “And so when you have the financial resources to provide those things that are going to impact people’s work life, that can lead to the district’s ability to recruit and retain.”

Baca-Oehlert said the union also has a parallel strategy of convincing districts to prioritize teacher pay in spending any new money they may receive from the state.

She observed that a double whammy of low pay and pandemic stresses are forcing school districts statewide to grapple with a teacher shortage

CEA recently conducted a survey and found that 67% of its members were thinking about leaving the teaching field in the near future. That’s a 27 percentage point increase from the 40% of members who indicated they were considering leaving when surveyed in December 2020.

Meanwhile, it’s become harder for school districts to retain educators as they struggle to compete against the wages in other industries. Some full-time teachers have left the classroom in pursuit of jobs that pay better and are lower stress.

Baca-Oehlert cited the example of an early career teacher who chose to leave the classroom and work in a coffee shop in pursuit of higher pay and less hassle.

Another teacher, veteran educator Diane Santorico, taught for nearly 30 years before deciding to call it quits last year. She often came home at the end of the day in tears after being forced to teach in a 95-degree classroom while wearing a mask and being unable to use school water fountains.

“There’s no doubt that the classroom is the center point for pressures generated by this pandemic,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, told reporters Monday. “Students and teachers and parents have felt a lot of those pressures. We need to do everything we can to invest as much as we can in the classroom.” 

But House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said the General Assembly has been “terrible at prioritizing” education funding. “But yet we all say that we prioritize education and we want to make sure that teachers can get more pay, we want to make sure that students can have more materials in the classroom.”

However, if the state doesn’t make good on its constitutional spending obligations, he added, “then what we’re really doing is saying we’re going to continually fund education at a lower level.”

Daniel Ducassi is a former Colorado Sun staff writer.