Funding passes for struggling rural schools

Rural schools across Colorado will likely have help finding teachers to fill empty classrooms, thanks to a proposal approved in the waning hours of the 2016 General Assembly session.

Last week on the last day of the 120-day session, lawmakers signed off on a bill that would provide financial incentives for student teachers to consider applying for jobs in rural Colorado. The measure would also provide stipends to help rural districts keep the teachers they already have.

Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan navigated the bill, Senate Bill 16-104, through a thorny House Education Committee and through the full House in the session’s last two days.

The law, if signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, would do four things immediately:

  • Hire a “rural education coordinator” who would play matchmaker between college students interested in teaching and rural school districts looking to hire educators.
  • Set up a “teacher cadet academy” between Boards of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) and rural high schools, to identify local high school students who may be interested in pursuing a teaching career. BOCES coordinate state-funded education services among school districts, primarily in rural areas.
  • Provide a stipend of up to $2,800 for as many as 40 student teachers, to cover the cost of tuition. Those student teachers would be required to commit to teaching in rural school districts for two years after graduation. Those who aren’t offered permanent jobs would be required to repay the stipend. A partial repayment would be required for those who leave before their two years are up.
  • Offer grants of up to $6,000 to current rural school teachers who want to pursue national board certification to teach college courses at the high school level, or want to obtain a master’s degree, for example. The law would cover up to 20 such grants.

Kevin Schott, the superintendent of the Deer Trail school district in eastern Arapahoe County, told the House Education Committee last week he hasn’t had a qualified math teacher for three straight years. They had to offer a $3,000 signing bonus plus free housing and utilities to attract applicants. The district recently hired someone who will start in the fall.

“We can’t go a fourth year without a certified math teacher,” Schott told the education committee, and they’re looking at providing a similar benefits package to entice a science teacher. Schott joked that district was tempted to offer another perk: a membership in, a rural online dating site.

Deer Trail Principal Dave Casey said the teacher shortage means they’re having to look at applicants with questionable pasts.

“The quality of those applying is something you need to talk about,” he said, noting he found out a recent applicant was being investigated by the state Department of Education.

Casey also had two teachers with problem histories. “Which one with a past do we take a chance on?” he told the committee.

Rep. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, questioned how the program would address racial and ethnic diversity. Becker responded that rural school districts already do, due to the large numbers of Latinos in rural Colorado.

Becker and the bill’s Senate sponsors, Sens. Nancy Todd, also an Aurora Democrat, and Republican Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, agreed to an amendment to require the program to address issues of diversity, including race, ethnicity and disability, in hiring.

At least one part of the program is already set up: A rural coordinator is already working at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison, paid for by a federal grant that expires in a year. The state law will pick up the continuing cost of that coordinator beginning July 1, 2017.



Photo credit: 401(K)12, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.