DENVER – State lawmakers on Thursday advanced legislation with the goal of driving more teachers to rural Colorado.
State education leaders say the issue is perhaps the biggest problem facing Colorado’s education system for the next five years.
New teachers – who are often young – feel little incentive to move to rural towns with a lack of social activities, especially if they’re paid less than teachers along the more populated Front Range.
“The joke became that our retention plan is once we get a good new teacher out here, let’s find them a farmer or rancher that’s tied to the land and get them married,” Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said of the measure he is co-sponsoring.
The bill would create education training programs through coordinators at colleges in rural parts of the state; provide stipends to offset tuition costs for student teachers who agree to teach in rural schools; establish programs in rural areas to identify high school students interested in teaching; and provide funds to teachers in rural districts who pursue national certifications.
An amendment Thursday cut the proposal by instituting training coordinators, as opposed to training centers, at rural colleges. That cut the cost of the bill from more than $1 million to around $500,000, which helps its chances to survive an appropriations process.
The legislation was passed out of the Senate Education Committee on a bipartisan 6-3 vote.
Rocco Fuschetto, superintendent of Ignacio School District 11-JT, said his system has lost at least three teachers this year, some of whom quit in the middle of the year. He called it the “worst year in a long time.”
“We struggle trying to get teachers to come here,” Fuschetto said. “We have to compete with Durango, Bayfield, Pagosa Springs, Cortez – we’re struggling.”
The issue is felt statewide, according to state education officials. Prior to the hearing on Thursday, lawmakers were briefed on the overall problem of attracting teachers.
“This is probably the one thing that is going to worry me most as commissioner over the next five years,” said Richard Crandall, Colorado commissioner of education.
He suggested creating a pipeline that could pump teachers from universities – even those outside the state – to rural schools.
“I can tell you that we are competing with 45 other states for teachers, and it’s going to be little things that push us over that edge,” Crandall said.
Robert Mitchell, the academic policy officer for educator preparation at the Colorado Department of Higher Education, said Colorado needs between 3,500 and 4,000 teachers this year to meet the needs of districts across the state. The state is on track to turn out only 2,500 teachers this year.
“We are definitely in crisis mode,” Mitchell said. “We don’t have enough teachers.”
Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who co-sponsored the bill, said she expects additional amendments, including language to revisit the effectiveness of the incentive program in five years.
She believes the legislation has a solid chance of making it through the Legislature, given that it has bipartisan sponsorship.
“The fact that he (Sonnenberg) believes so much in it, and us working together, helped bring bipartisan support,” Todd said. “Had it just been my bill, it would have died.”