Not everyone is ready to call it a crisis, but the teacher shortage in rural Colorado is approaching crisis levels. Reportedly nearly 3,000 teachers with the majority concentrated in rural Colorado.
Several reasons can be and have been cited for the shortage. Salaries in rural areas pale in comparison to metro schools; test scores (a factor which accounts for a substantial part of teacher performance evaluations) are below those of metro schools; and with unemployment sinking as low as 2.4 percent in Colorado, people are finding less stressful, better paying jobs in the private sector.
“That is certainly a problem,” said Christian Rivas, 31, who left Pueblo and graduated with a teaching degree from Northern Colorado but got out of the teaching game in 2013 for a better paying job in the private sector. “I wasn’t teaching in rural Colorado school districts, but I know several people who were teaching or in teaching programs during the economic crash 10 years ago. I think there were at least eight people I knew who were looking at teaching around 2008-2009. I think one of them taught for maybe two years then took a job at Arrow. I think our state’s growth and the country’s economic resurgence overall has taken some educators off the market.”
If the metro teaching market is finding it difficult to compete with Colorado’s private sector surge, the state’s rural teaching market doesn’t stand a chance.
According to a Colorado Public Radio story on teaching in rural Colorado, the starting salary for teachers in Montezuma-Cortez school district near the Four Corners region is just under $30,000. As a comparison two school districts nearby – Durango and Ship Rock, New Mexico – pay about $7,000 more to start.
“I don’t care how much lower the cost of living is in rural Colorado versus metro Colorado, no one is making a living off $30,000 these days unless they aren’t paying rent,” Rivas said. “And teaching is not a 9-5 job that you can just punch out of and forget about until the next day, either. It requires a lot of hours spent planning at home and on the weekends. I think there are better hourly options that would be less time consuming and stressful for that kind of money.”
State lawmakers are aware of the problems and as of late 2017 were fielding solutions to solve the shortage. With pay, stress and poor perception being the key factors contributing to the shortage – according to 10 town hall meetings held across the state last summer – state lawmakers are considering solutions that include loan forgiveness, block grants to allow superintendents to decide how they want to attract teachers, and more affordable housing for teachers in rural districts.
A proposal for a statewide base salary was an attractive idea, but an unachievable one according to Kim Hunter Reed, executive director of the Colorado Department of High Education, as there are no state funds for that and little chance to overhaul TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights), which restricts raising government revenue.
Teacher residency programs, like Boettcher Teacher Residency and recent program launched by Otero Junior College in La Junta and the University of Colorado Denver hope to provide a fast track for potential candidates to the classroom.
The latter program will allow students to get a bachelor’s degree in elementary education that can be finished entirely at OJC’s 1,500-student campus in southeastern Colorado.
For Rivas, however, one disadvantage rural Colorado will always face is location.
“I did what most of my peers did, I left without the intent to return,” he said of leaving his hometown. “There aren’t many young people who want to move out to the plains or to a cold desert. And those of us who grew up in those areas, don’t really want to stay. There isn’t a whole lot that can be done to stop the exodus of youth from these communities. It’s a harsh reality this state has faced for decades.”