Can Colorado afford to save rural schools?
Job openings in rural public schools go unfilled for years. Classes are crammed with too many students. A single person often teaches multiple grades at once, and administrators slash subjects because there’s nobody to teach them.
Eastern Plains educators and students alike are desperate for a fix, and a good first step is waiting for lawmakers to figure out what Colorado can afford for the coming year.
House lawmakers are reviewing the 2016-17 budget this week. Once they have wrapped up, lawmakers in both chambers will start looking to gut any bill that’s on the brink of passing with a price tag on it.
The education bill Eastern Plains lawmakers are pushing would offer financial incentives to aspiring teachers willing to work in rural districts. The measure’s initial cost, about $1 million, was too much for Republicans on the committee to bear. They asked the bill’s sponsors, Sens. Nancy Todd of Aurora, a Democrat, and Republican Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, to go back to the drawing board and find a way to cut the costs.
The lawmakers started by cutting one of the bill’s main recruiting tools: three of four rural education centers that would play matchmaker between school superintendents and potential rural teachers. Chopping the three centers cut the bill’s cost by half.
A fourth center, at Western State Colorado University, already exists and will continue to cover the entire state.
The amended bill sets a tuition credit of up to $2,800 for any student teacher who agrees to teach in a rural school. Only 40 student teachers will be allowed per year.
Teachers who want to add concurrent enrollment classes to their teaching load, which can boost their pay, can get up to $6,000 if they commit to teaching in a rural district for three years, once they’re certified to teach those college-credit eligible classes.
Teachers seeking a master’s degree would also receive up to $6,000 of support to cover their tuition costs.
Jammie Brian, a native of Holly, has taught for 20 years. She holds a bachelor’s degree in math and two master’s degrees. She loves her work, but low pay makes it hard to stay in the schools. With 20 years of teaching experience, she makes $40,000 a year.
A colleague of hers is leaving Holly, with regret, because he can’t afford to support his family on $27,000 a year, she said.
Sen. Michael Johnston of Denver, a former school principal, was saddened by the low salaries and noted a teacher fresh out of college is paid $40,000 as a first year teacher in Denver Public Schools.
Brian, the teacher from Holly, says if people are brought from an urban area to a rural one to teach, they will see how welcoming rural communities are.
Said Brian: “Even though we’re giving them a carrot to get there, at least 50 percent will stay” for the lifestyle and the ties formed between teachers and students in rural schools.
Photo credit: Jason Eppink, Creative Commons, Flickr.
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