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Lucy Squire teaches third grade at Copper Mesa Elementary March 7, 2023, in Highlands Ranch. Squire has taught for 18 years and is one of many teachers who frequently spends money out of pocket to fund classroom supplies and learning materials. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Everywhere you look in Lucy Squire’s classroom, you can spy the teacher’s touch. 

Strands of lights carefully strung across the ceiling cast the room in a calming glow. Curtains fashioned from greenish blue bed sheets soften sunlight pouring in through the windows. Shelves of books sit organized in the back corner.

Squire, a third grade teacher at Copper Mesa Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, purchased the lights, makeshift drapes and many of the books that help make her classroom what she calls “our home away from home for our kids.”

She also bought many of the basics that make it a classroom in the first place — dry-erase markers, bulletin boards, a stool where she can sit while teaching at her whiteboard, a dark pink director’s chair that has lasted almost all her 18 years of reading aloud to students and bookcases that hold the hundreds of books in her class library.

“It seems like the expectation is just that we spend our money for whatever we need,” said Squire, who earlier in her career would drop more than $500 on her classroom and has tried to scale back her personal spending to less than $200 per school year. “I try to just keep it to the basics of what I need and just whatever I need throughout the years, it comes up.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers wants to ease that financial burden with legislation that would provide an income tax credit to public school educators aimed at reimbursing them for classroom supplies, costs tied to professional development, continuing education, extra educational materials and field trips. 

Lucy Squire’s third grade classroom at Copper Mesa Elementary March 7, 2023, in Highlands Ranch. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

House Bill 1208 would grant a $1,000 income tax credit to educators who teach an entire school year and a $500 credit to teachers in the classroom for half a year. The credit would be available in 2023, 2024, 2025 and 2026 and could benefit nearly 50,000 licensed public school teachers per year, including educators at charter schools, according to state Rep. Bob Marshall,  a Highlands Ranch Democrat and a lead sponsor of the bill. 

The bill could lower state revenues by an estimated maximum of $50 million each year if all 50,000 eligible teachers apply for and get the $1,000 credit. The credit is refundable, meaning that if the amount of the credit is larger than what a teacher owes in taxes, they would receive a check for the difference.

The measure won’t solve low teacher pay, lawmakers acknowledge, but it’s a step that inches them toward better compensation.

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“It’s not a home run in the game,” Marshall said. “It’s a nice base hit … a nice hit for a win to get on the base. A thousand bucks in every teacher’s pocket in the public school system, how can that not be a win?”

The measure wouldn’t really affect Colorado’s budget in years where the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights cap on government growth and spending is exceeded. It would, however, lower the amount of money available for taxpayer refunds. 

In years when the TABOR cap isn’t exceeded, the measure would reduce the amount of money legislators have to spend on other priorities. 

“Public education needs to be funded by the public, and our education system in Colorado has fallen way behind from where it was,” Marshall said.

Lucy Squire and her husband construct her students’ name tags from wood and laminated paper. Squire has taught for 18 years and is one of many teachers who frequently spend money out of pocket to fund classroom supplies and learning materials. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“This has been an ongoing issue for 50 years where they shouldn’t have been paying out of their pocket for these expenses,” he added.

Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, has seen firsthand how much educators sacrifice so their students have what they need to learn. Soper, another lead sponsor of the bill, watched as his mother, who taught in Delta Public Schools for 40 years, and two great aunts took part of their pay and put it back into their students, despite not seeing pay increases.

“They didn’t even think twice, and it was all about putting the kids first,” Soper said.

He noted that income tax credits are a way to thank teachers and boost the money they receive when lawmakers are limited in how much they can directly influence teacher pay across the state. In line with Colorado’s focus on local control, individual school boards set their own educator salaries.

“We can’t just pass an educator funding bill in Colorado and actually have it hit the back pockets of teachers because so much of our education is localized and based on the local school boards,” Soper said.

Sen. Janice Rich, R-Grand Junction, is also a lead sponsor of House Bill 1208 after running a separate teacher funding bill earlier this legislative session that was rejected. That legislation sought to reimburse teachers for classroom expenses up to $500, but not for continuing education.

“Sometimes teachers can’t wait for special books or special needs for some of their students, and so they go ahead and they expend some of their own money to help their students,” said Rich, who also comes from a family of teachers. “So I think that they should be compensated for that.”

Marshall said he has received pushback from some public education advocates who are more narrowly focused on paying down debt the state has owed to schools since 2010, when it implemented a budgeting tool known as the budget stabilization factor during the Great Recession. The tool allows the General Assembly to allocate to schools each year less than what they are owed. For the current school year, legislators owe schools $321 million.

Making more dents in that debt has been a priority of Gov. Jared Polis, which he cited in his State of the State address in January. 

“Anything that distracts from that they don’t like,” Marshall said. 

Other opposition has come from public education advocates who are wary of tax credits altogether, he said.

Marshall is adamant that the income tax credits would make a significant difference for teachers, particularly since money would be funneled directly to them.

“It goes straight to them,” he said, adding, “Get the money in the teachers’ pocket. That’s the bottom line, right?”

“Our educators are hurting”

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, backs the legislation so that more money can flow to educators, some of whom purchase more than paper, pencils and other supplies for their students, reaching deeper into their pockets to buy food, winter coats and shoes for kids, said CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert.

“Basic survival things,” Baca-Oehlert said, “so it goes beyond basic classroom expenses.”

Medical professionals aren’t asked to buy their own equipment to tend to patients, she noted.

Neither should teachers, she said.

“Our educators are hurting,” Baca-Oehlert said. “We’re seeing it play out in so many ways from the educator shortage to the high stress and low morale that our educators are saying they’re experiencing. And so when we can do things at the legislative level to alleviate those pressures, to provide some relief to our educators, we should.”

Squire, of the Highlands Ranch elementary school, has stretched her creative side as much as possible to avoid straining her budget, crafting bulletin boards out of fabric that she can wash and reuse instead of making them with paper or cork. She has stitched together her classroom library book by book, buying a couple hundred on her own, inheriting many from a teacher who transitioned into a different position, swapping books with other educators and using points from publishing company Scholastic to get new books and add to her collection. 

“We don’t make a whole lot of money, especially compared to the amount of work that we do, the hours we put in,” said Squire, whose entire teaching career has unfolded at Copper Mesa Elementary School. “If you were to compare our hours and our workload to people in the business world or other professionals, I think we definitely drew the short stick. It should be better. It should be better set up so that we have all the resources we need to support our kids.”

Lucy Squire teaches third grade at Copper Mesa Elementary March 7, 2023, in Highlands Ranch. Squire has taught for 18 years and is one of many teachers who frequently spends money out of pocket to fund classroom supplies and learning materials. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Squire has also completed college classes to meet state requirements for renewing her teacher’s license. She earned nine credit hours last summer and is currently pursuing another six credit hours. Each three credit hour class costs $400. 

“That adds up very quickly,” Squire said.

Squire has paid upfront and received tuition reimbursement through her district, Douglas County School District. The income tax credit in House Bill 1208 would also cover those tuition costs.

She supports the legislation so that personal funds she would otherwise divert to her classroom and profession can go toward her family instead.

“If you put your money with the people,” Squire said, “won’t you have a better impact?”

House Bill 1208 is scheduled to get its first hearing in the House Education Committee on March 23.

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

Erica Breunlin

Email: Twitter: @EricaBreunlin