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Superintendent Qualman's Message to State Leaders

February 1, 2022
Dear Colorado legislators and other leaders in Colorado government:
This legislative session, I’m asking you to change the way you fund K-12 education. Presently, Colorado schools don’t have enough qualified educators to effectively teach our next generation.
I’ve been recruiting K-12 teachers for 15 years. I used to walk into recruiting fairs teeming with highly qualified applicants. Now, whether they’re held in-person or virtually, they’re nearly empty. Recruiters stand around shoulder to shoulder wondering, “How could this happen?” As it gets worse and worse every year, the conversation is about, “How will schools survive this shortage?”
Before you assume that the shortage of educators is a product of COVID-19 or the Great Resignation, understand that enrollment in Teacher Education programs started to drop in 2010, and has continued to decline for the past 12 years (Camera, 2022). The New York Times (Goldberg, 2021) reports that, “The number of education degrees conferred by American colleges and universities dropped by 22 percent between 2006 and 2019, despite an overall increase in U.S. university graduates.”
The problem is much worse in rural parts of the state, and in areas like mine with higher cost of living.
Why aren’t teachers coming to Colorado?
Colorado ranks 50th out of 50 states in Teacher Wage Competitiveness (Great Ed Colorado, 2021). Colorado is 45th in percent of Taxable Resources Spent on Education. Colorado spends about $3,000 less per pupil annually than the national average. To give a real-world application of that number, in a classroom of 25 students, that equals $75,000 a year. The math says Colorado doesn’t value kids or educators, and it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a teacher in Colorado. So what do they do? They go where they’re valued, which is happening at an alarming rate.
How are districts dealing with this?
This year 114 out of 178 school districts in Colorado serve students only 4 days-a-week. That’s 64% of our school districts on a 4-day-week schedule. The Colorado Department of Education even produces a manual for how to do it (CDE, 2021). For most, the schedule change produces little in terms of cost savings. Rather, it’s a drastic step districts take to compete in the hiring market. Colorado leads the nation in 4 day-a-week school districts. We should be appalled and embarrassed for leading the nation in reducing the amount of days kids can be in school.
This has to be viewed as a “canary in the coal mine”. How can we expect to keep our schools and our kids competitive in a global market when we are forced to reduce the amount of days they can be in school?
So what can you do about it?
Offer solutions that match the scale of the problem.
To get Colorado competitive with other states, can we be at least average in what we spend per pupil? Can we agree that average is a modest and reasonable goal for which we aim to support the kids of Colorado? I hope you share with me the anger and frustration that comes with pleading to achieve average as a funding target.
How far away are we from average funding?
To get to the national average for per-pupil spending, it would require at least $2B in additional revenue for K-12. That’s a big number, but we can’t expect to address the problem if we’re scared to talk about what it takes to fix it.
The knee jerk reaction to that number in Colorado is, “It’s not possible because of TABOR”. TABOR has always been a third rail issue because, “Who wants higher taxes?” At some point we have to review the unintended consequences of TABOR.
The intent was to limit Colorado government, empower voters to approve tax increases, and let market forces drive Colorado’s economy. After 22 years of TABOR, has it constricted us enough? Can we finally acknowledge that TABOR is about to ruin our schools?
We’re now last in the nation in our ability to offer competitive salaries to educators. Two-thirds of our school districts can only provide school 4 days-a-week. How bad are we willing to let it get? Unfortunately, governments usually require a crisis or natural disaster to take rapid, dramatic action. I’m telling you now, from the front lines, this is a crisis. This is the breaking point. If you continue to kick this can down the road, it will go from crisis to tragedy for hundreds of thousands of Colorado kids.
I thrive with high expectations and high accountability. I’m ready to make our schools better and to live up to any standards you propose. But understand that it’s unreasonable to expect A+ results with D- resources. Don’t send me into the arena to recruit high quality educators with my hands bound by the artificial constraints of TABOR.
We can’t successfully compete in a free market if Colorado continues to choke and stumble because TABOR constricts our ability to oxygenate the system with the resources required to thrive.
Fund first! Recognize what it takes to make us competitive and get there.
When you rise to submit legislation this session, or engage in any discussions about how to “fix” K-12 education, ask yourself if your solution fits the scale of the problem.
This legislative session, please don’t waste time debating insignificant adjustments to the School Finance Formula. Don’t move hundreds of dollars from one district to another, when the solution requires billions.
Please don’t tinker with school accountability metrics. If you must debate how to improve the accountability system, remember that nearly two-thirds of Colorado school districts have been forced to reduce the amount of contact days they have with kids.
Please don’t think that reducing the Budget Stabilization (BS) factor is adequate. K-12 students and educators have carried the burden of balancing the state budget for the past 13 years. The state found a loophole to ignore the will of the people who passed Amendment 23 in 2000. Amendment 23 would have allowed Colorado’s K-12 schools to remain competitive, but the BS factor has left our system dangerously unstable. Completely eliminating the BS factor is a start, but more must be done.
Unfortunately, those feeble efforts have been the norm for years. They create the illusion that legislators are making a difference, but I can assure you that efforts of that scale completely miss the urgency and magnitude of the challenge we face.
I may not sound like it, but I’m usually an optimist. Rarely will you see me on the bandwagon of doom and despair. But I’m also a realist, and the reality is that our system is at a breaking point.
Tackle this issue with the urgency and courage that our kids deserve.
Propose solutions that match the scale of the problem.