When teachers descend on the Colorado Capitol to demand pay raises, they’re often met with a common refrain from state lawmakers: Talk to your districts.
That’s because it’s not the legislature that holds the purse strings when it comes to teacher pay. The General Assembly may send millions of dollars to districts, but it’s up to the districts to decide how to spend it.
Democratic-sponsored Senate Bill 172 aims to change that by creating a dedicated legislative fund for teacher and school staff raises, though the measure won’t actually direct any money into the account.
But even if there’s no money initially, the very formation of the fund is impactful. Think of it like a pressure point for state lawmakers, who will no longer be able to blame districts alone for low teacher pay if the bill passes.
“We’re looking for a way to make sure that there is just simply a dedicated spot in the budget that can potentially be used to help shore up this situation,” said Kevin Vick, vice president of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.
CEA is supporting Senate Bill 172. Vick says although there won’t be money put in the account at first, he thinks it “opens the door to a whole realm of possibilities.”
Vick said the bank account could be filled with some of the billions of dollars in coronavirus aid the state is receiving from the federal government. It could be filled with general-fund money. It could be filled with revenue from a future tax-raising ballot question.
The Colorado Department of Education would be tasked with distributing the dollars, though the bill doesn’t set many guidelines on that front, which has drawn criticism from opponents of the measure.
Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, said her legislation is needed because “educators are fleeing the profession.” Many teachers struggle to make ends meet on their salaries, leading some to pick up a second job to supplement their income.
Danielson argued last week during debate on the Senate floor that the fund is the only way the legislature can guarantee its allocations affect teacher pay. “When it is filled, this money cannot be siphoned away into 50 other priorities that every school district is faced with,” she said.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat who is also a prime sponsor of Senate Bill 172, called the legislation “a foot in the door.” He’s supportive of a ballot initiative to raise money for the account.
The highest average salary for Colorado teachers is $53,434 compared with the national average of $61,730, according to a report recently released by the Colorado School Finance Project.
And the economic downturn spurred by the pandemic is likely to prevent teachers from receiving raises in the near future, further reducing incentives for teachers to stay in the field or for new teachers to enter it at all, educator advocates say.
Some Republicans aren’t thrilled about the proposal. “It’s kind of like a letter to Santa Claus,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican.
Last year, Lundeen unsuccessfully pushed for a proposal that would have rewarded highly effective Colorado teachers with bonuses. He sees Senate Bill 172 as the wrong approach.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, said he’s concerned about how the Colorado Department of Education would determine how money in the fund would be distributed.
“How would CDE decide which district gets the money?” he asked. “… I don’t see anything like that in the bill. It seems curious that we would set up an account that would have no money in it but if some point it had, oh say, $178 in it, would all 178 districts get a dollar? Or would the biggest district, would they get half of the $178 or all of the $178?”
Opponents also don’t like that the fund doesn’t prioritize money for teachers over other school staff. That means administrators, counselors, cafeteria staff and others could ostensibly benefit from the account, too.
But despite the opposition from the majority of Republicans in the state Senate, several GOP senators — including Don Coram, Rob Woodward and Kevin Priola — voted for the bill last week as it cleared the Colorado Senate and was sent to the House.
There was a version of Senate Bill 172 brought last year, but it prescribed a consistent funding mechanism. The legislation was shelved because of the coronavirus crisis.
Meanwhile, a few years ago a similar fund was created for charter schools and has since received millions in funding.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, brushed off the concerns. “We’re driving good people away from that profession,” she said. “What’s wrong with creating this fund? It doesn’t cost us anything.”
Senate Bill 172 is awaiting a hearing before the House Education Committee. After easily clearing the Senate, the legislation is likely to pass the House and make it to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk.