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Classrooms at Calhan School District on March 15, 2022. Calhan School District serves more than 400 students from preschool to 12th grade. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Teacher pay has long trailed behind other professions requiring a college degree, and in Colorado that pay gap is widest of any state, according to a report published last week by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank that identifies itself as nonpartisan.

Colorado teachers earn 35.9% less than other college-educated workers, the report shows, with Oklahoma teachers facing the second largest gap, making 32.8% less than their college-educated peers in other industries. Pay gaps between teachers and their counterparts in other fields exist in every state.

It’s yet another grim indication of the tough financial realities hanging over teachers in Colorado, where many pick up another job to make ends meet and struggle to afford a home of their own. Fewer than one-fifth of homes across Colorado are affordable to teachers who make an average salary in their district, even as average teacher salaries have increased by about 25% in the past seven years. 

And low wages often complicate district efforts to draw teachers and keep them. Many districts have seen significant declines in the number of applications they receive for vacant positions and struggle to keep teachers in their classrooms long term. The deep chasm between wages also signals what some longtime educators see as an underlying sense of apathy across the country.

“When a country doesn’t care about how their teachers are paid, it shows the kind of attitude about its future generation for the nation,” said Jingzi Huang, school director for the School of Teacher Education and associate dean for the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Economic Policy Institute’s report highlights the decadeslong pay discrepancy between teachers and other college-educated professionals as teacher pay has largely stagnated. The average weekly wages of public school educators, when factoring in inflation, jumped $29 from 1996 to 2021, from $1,319 to $1,348, the report notes. Meanwhile, other college-educated workers experienced a $445 pay bump in weekly wages over the same time period, from $1,564 to $2,009.  

Pay that lags behind other jobs is one of the factors that discourages students with an interest in teaching to commit their career to it, especially when they have other opportunities in industries outside education, Huang said. She has watched as enrollment numbers in UNC’s teacher preparation program — the biggest teacher preparation program in the state — and similar programs at other higher education institutions have dwindled. From 2019 to 2021, enrollment in UNC’s School of Teacher Education dropped by 29% while enrollment among students focused on special education decreased by almost 16%, according to Huang.

The University of Northern Colorado’s campus commons is seen on May 19, 2022, in Greeley. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“It has become more competitive,” she said. “It’s not like people don’t have other choices anymore.”

Huang has seen many prospective teachers quit the field before ever stepping into a classroom as a full-time educator. For more than five years, UNC has partnered with the Colorado School of Mines in a program that prepares Mines students to teach middle and high school science or math. Many of those students have completed all the necessary steps to secure their teaching license from the state but have ultimately accepted jobs in other industries that come with better compensation, Huang said.

Low pay, public perception of teaching — which often skews negative — and lack of support are major reasons why people take their career aspirations in other directions, she said.

Spelling out “what a lot of teachers already know and feel”

Colorado’s ranking as the worst state for teacher pay compared to other jobs for college graduates doesn’t necessarily surprise Colleen O’Neil, associate commissioner of the Educator Talent Unit at the state education department, who helps assemble the department’s own financial analyses of teacher compensation.

O’Neil acknowledges teacher pay is a widespread problem throughout the state, but she emphasized that it’s important to consider wages district by district as dollars stretch further in some parts of Colorado than others. A $55,000 salary, for instance, may reasonably help an educator afford rent and cover family expenses in some regions while in others, that salary would barely keep a roof over their head, she said.

New educators are among those she worries about most when it comes to financial pressures. Many starting teachers outside the Denver metro area take home less than $40,000 a year, O’Neil said.

As a first-year teacher, “it is really hard to make ends meet with the salaries being offered,” she said, adding that teachers can find more financial stability the longer they stick in the classroom — if they choose to do so.

In trying to draw more teachers into the profession, “that starting salary is a real problem,” O’Neil said. “It is a detriment to ensuring that I have a quality of life.”

That problem has started to pinch districts in their hiring efforts. Elementary school job openings in the Front Range used to easily attract more than 300 applicants, whereas now districts are lucky if they get a dozen applicants, O’Neil said.

The wide disparity between teacher salaries and those of other professions is also particularly frustrating for educators working in a state where the economy has proven robust, to the extent that it recently refunded taxpayers with Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights checks worth $750 for single tax filers and $1,500 for joint filers.

“It’s just ridiculous,” Huang said.

Mark Sass, Teach Plus executive director for Colorado, is shocked that Colorado’s pay gap is the largest in the country, particularly since the state has a pretty high percentage of people with college degrees. He would have expected less of a gap in a state with a well-educated population.

Classrooms at Calhan School District on March 15, 2022. The district serves upwards of 400 students from preschool through 12th grade. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

But the report puts “in numbers what a lot of teachers already know and feel,” said Sass, who retired from teaching in June after 26 years in the classroom and whose current organization trains teachers to weigh in on policy at the school, district and state levels.

It also gives Colorado and other states a clearer idea of exactly how much teachers should earn rather than continuing generic conversations of increasing teacher pay that don’t get into specific numbers, Sass said.

However, with data from 2021, the report doesn’t reflect recent attempts to boost teacher pay, he said, particularly in states like Mississippi, where earlier this year the governor signed into law a significant pay raise for public educators, who received an average increase of about $5,100, driving up their pay by more than 10%, the Associated Press reported.

Colorado can’t use that same kind of mechanism to increase teacher pay with its constitutional local control provisions that place decisions related to teacher compensation in the hands of individual districts.

Some districts are trying to close the pay gap by giving raises, O’Neil noted.

Lawmakers have also tried to ease the financial burden teachers face, passing into law a measure that will provide a state stipend to student teachers and also help them cover expensive costs of state licensure exams.

“But that only helps with the students who are already in the (teacher preparation) program,” Huang said. “It doesn’t help in terms of attracting other people to get into the program.”

Huang traces much of the deep-seated political turmoil playing out nationally back to teacher shortages and low pay for public educators, including a lack of understanding of how to participate in the country’s democratic process. Teachers are among the first adults children interact with and significantly shape them and their understanding of the world, Huang said. Without adequate pay, teachers and the future of schools and the country hang in the balance.

 “Teaching is a great profession,” Huang said. “We know that, but I cannot argue against the statistics.”

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...