State’s teacher shortage needs an effective plan for action

Friday, April 28, 2017 3:51 PM

A superintendent from rural Colorado testified in the House a few weeks ago. She told a story of advertising for a math teacher for 18 months, without one applicant. Another woman told me she is an English teacher who took science in high school, so now has to teach it; no one qualified applied.

When Colorado’s 2017 session began, I wrote about the importance of Colorado’s teacher shortage, and why I was coming forward with a bill to create a strategic plan to address this problem.

As the bill moves toward the governor’s office, I am happy about the numerous educators and community members who have come forward across the state to join an earnest conversation informing lawmakers and government.

Colorado needs about 3,000 more teachers, but the devil is in the details. The teacher supply’s effect on the 59th district, for example, is nuanced. Unlike school districts with empty application boxes, our problems center more on teacher retention than on the number of bodies.

We may be able to recruit teachers to our Southwestern schools, but if we can’t keep them there, our educators won’t accrue the kind of experience and career-long skills that help students flourish.

In part, the concerns of teachers here reflect wider patterns: over-testing, affordable housing and respect. It is a lack of connections, and materials, and large classes to compensate for a tight budget.

And it’s always money, of course.

Many rural schools, I discovered, are in great need of attention. Rural teachers make about $10,000 less per year than their urban counterparts. With a shortage of colleagues and poor compensations, it’s no surprise that these different factors can combine into crisis.

These complications have reinforced the importance of an objective analysis with many seats at the table.

HB 17-1003 directs the Department of Higher Education to complete their annual study, then work with the Department of Education, school districts and other stakeholders to not only find out why this shortage has become so critical, but to make a strategic plan on how we can fix it. That is what government working efficiently looks like.

This plan will give us impetus to present good bills next year, many that address concerns of teachers all around the state. By remedying those issues, the teacher shortage may be at least partially solved, and we will be on our way to continuing the conversation about keeping our hard-working teachers in Colorado.

As a Legislature, we want to make decisions based on good information. It’s too easy to act on hunches, or for individual legislators to look for solutions that are only relevant to their area of the state. It’s understandable for Denver legislators to focus on urban issues, while rural legislators focus on hiring and keeping their staff. With diverse interests and districts at play, we need deliberation and we need to set an agenda. Thank you for taking part in this challenge. I’m excited and encouraged to see action plans turn into action.

Barbara McLachlan represents State House District 59. Reach her at During the legislative session, Rep. McLachlan and Sen. Don Coram share this column on alternate weeks.