There’s an old rural joke about how to keep teachers in local schools: find them a rancher or farmer to marry. It isn’t always easy to attract educators to the country, and when they arrive, they don’t always stick around.
The pay gap between rural and urban teachers is enormous, and budgets have taken a hit since lawmakers slashed K-12 education funding by $1 billion in 2010. Those cuts are slowly being restored, but for lawmakers wanting to lure teachers to rural schools, finding money for incentives is far from guaranteed.
That is not stopping state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat and veteran teacher, from taking a bill this week to the Senate Education Committee that would help rural school districts attract great teachers.
Teacher retention and recruitment are among the top problems faced by rural school districts, Todd said.
Under her measure, Senate Bill 16-104, student teachers would receive stipends paid for by the state budget or tuition waivers from their colleges during semesters they teach in rural districts. A teacher cadet program would encourage rural high school students to consider teaching as a profession and in their communities. And the state would cover the costs for rural teachers who want to become either nationally board certified or qualified to teach concurrent enrollment classes, which allow high school students to take college courses and earn college credit before graduating.
Such certification means more money in teachers’ pockets, said Todd.
The teacher shortage in some districts is so dire they don’t get a single applicant for open positions, or they’re putting substitutes into the classroom full-time, said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Colorado Rural Schools Alliance.
“This is not okay,” Todd said.
Sterling Republican Jerry Sonnenberg’s Senate district boasts one-quarter of the state’s 178 school districts. He toured them last fall, and heard about the retention problem from almost every one. He is a cosponsor on SB 104, and pointed out a teacher coming to the Eastern Plains will be paid $10,000 less than their urban colleagues.
To recruit teachers to rural districts, schools have to offer more than money. They need to promote the joy of country living — something Sonnenberg said urban teachers sorely miss out on.
When you teach in rural Colorado, “You’re not just a number,” said Sonnenberg, who is married to a high school teacher. He paints an idyllic picture of educators, students and families building tight bonds at community gatherings, grocery stores and churches — something he said does not happen in cities.
Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan, the bill’s House sponsor, said rural teachers find community support that would be unheard of in urban settings. A car that breaks down is a matter of public concern, as is finding a teacher somewhere to live.
Educational environments are also different, he added. In a rural school, the kindergarten teacher may be the only one at that level, or may even be teaching more than one grade. But that teacher is part of a small team where everybody supports each other, he said. “No teacher is left alone.”
Like Sonnenberg, Becker witnesses the day-to-day experience of educators, since he is married to a kindergarten teacher.
Sonnenberg and Becker both appreciate that Todd, an urban lawmaker, is carrying the bill.
It’s a sign that urban lawmakers are listening and are beginning to understand rural life, said Becker.
Although he is the bill’s chief sponsor in the House, Becker worries about where the money needed to put the measure into action will come from, even though there isn’t a price tag yet.
His top priority this year is to find money in the state’s dwindling budget for public education, particularly money that would reduce the $900 million shortfall that has been in place in recent years.
The bill would not require a big contribution from the state, said Todd. “We’re not talking about thousands of teachers.”