COLORADO, USA — Colorado is number one! Except Colorado does not want to be number one on this list.
The Economic Policy Institute published a report highlighting the pay disparity between teachers and other careers.
Colorado is number one, or last, in the largest pay gap. On average, college-educated teachers in Colorado earn 35.9% fewer dollars than college-educated nonteachers.
"Making a third less pay, that's a humungous amount of money over somebody's career," Sylvia Allegretto said.
Allegretto is the author of the report and a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute.
"It's the worst that I've ever estimated in the 18 years I've been doing this," she said. "When students sitting in classrooms today understand this chart, and they do, you have to imagine that even the ones who may want to go into teaching may well not choose it as a career because they just take such a financial hit."
Based on her research, teachers in 1996 (based on 2021 dollars) earned, on average, 94 cents on the dollar compared to college graduates in other professions. Today, teachers earn 76 cents on the dollar.
"Teachers have the future of the Colorado workforce in front of them every day," Allegretto said. "It's an opportunity cost. If you decide to work in a different profession and not become a teacher, that's what we're talking about here."
"Something that has made me sort of depressed is really, Colorado is a state that has been doing very well economically. We are not at the bottom of the nation in terms of financial situation," Jingzi (Ginny) Huang, Director of the University of Northern Colorado School of Teacher Education, said.
UNC has the highest number of teacher candidate graduates of all Colorado schools.
"Even though the life can be a little bit more difficult and challenging at times, it's a very, very rewarding career," Huang said. "Many of them know the stress already, and many of them know the low pay already, but I think we have lost tons of students who would otherwise want to become teachers."
The idea of lower pay just to be a teacher is seen as a deterrent to even considering teaching as a profession.
"The question is really how to attract those who don't know yet, and this is where a salary really, really works," Huang said. "In this kind of environment, everything has become competitive. In this kind of context, salary talks."
"I can give you lots of good reasons to be a teacher. We are the profession upon which others are built," Colleen O'Neil, Colorado Department of Education Associate Commissioner of Educator Talent, said.
How teacher salaries work
Teacher salaries are dictated by local school boards. School districts are primarily funded through local property taxes. If local taxes do not reach the level of funding that the school district is expecting, then state money is used to backfill.
The state also has a formula, called the budget stabilization factor, that reduces the amount of money provided to backfill. This is to reduce the amount equitably across districts.
"We have a lot of really brilliant legislators, as well as brilliant staff, working on how to solve that problem. I think it really is just making sure that there is more equitable distribution of funds for those districts that may not be able to raise the mill levies to be able to pay their teachers differently," O'Neil said.
"We have an incongruent system. When we're one of the stronger economies in the country, yet we fund our schools the way that we do, it doesn't match up," Amie Baca-Oehlert, Colorado Education Association President, said.
Teachers went on strike in Denver, Pueblo and Park Counties at different times in 2018 and 2019.
They walked out for better pay.
"I think this shows again, why you saw such labor strife from the teachers around 2018-2019, when it was happening all over the country. I think this brings credibility to the teachers, that how far behind can teachers keep falling until the best and the brightest aren't teaching anymore in Colorado," Allegretto said.
"I've seen and heard people say, 'Let's just create a GoFundMe and people can contribute their TABOR refund checks to the GoFundMe, and then we can fund our schools.' Well, that's the point of taxes. That's how we fund our schools," Baca-Oehlert said.
Funding decisions are made by who?
TABOR, the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, limits how much money the state can keep and spend each year. Without it at the state level, lawmakers would be able to spend the extra money as part of the general budgeting process. Lawmakers budget for areas like:
- K-12 education
- Health Care
- Human Services
- Higher Education
- Public Safety
The $750 and $1,500 checks Colorado residents are receiving this month are part of their TABOR refund.
Eliminating TABOR would require a statewide vote, with 55% approval.
Even then, there would be no guarantee any overage that would normally be refunded back to the people would be spent on education. Plus, state lawmakers do not fund teacher salaries, local school districts make those decisions.
"TABOR is coming back to bite Colorado again and again and again and again through the decades," Allegretto said.
"Certainly, TABOR is one of the issues that ties our hands in looking at a fiscal fix," Baca-Oehlert said.
As part of the Colorado Education Association, Baca-Oehlert helped get lawmakers to pass a bill to create a dedicated fund for teacher pay.
"There is no mechanism, at the state level, that mandates that funding coming from the state goes towards educator salaries," Baca-Oehlert said. "We created, through legislation, the Educator Pay Fund. The sad fact is it has not been funded."
That legislation was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis (D) in 2021, but it requires a statewide vote for a dedicated statewide tax increase to fund the fund.
Colorado voters generally only pass sin tax increases (pot, tobacco, alcohol) and reject any other taxes. In 2019, voters rejected Proposition CC, which would have allowed the state to keep and spend TABOR refunds, like the checks being sent out this month. The spending was supposed to be tied to education and transportation.
"We really can't fix community by community, we need a statewide fix because students, no matter where they go to school, deserve a high quality public education," Baca-Oehlert said. "If you have two school districts side-by-side, and they can approve a local mill levy override, because of the way the property taxes work, you may not have the same property tax base that the community next door does, and so you'll never have that same amount of funding or money."
The study took into account teachers that work a nine-month schedule, compared to year-round careers.
"The reason we look at weekly wages is that that helps take care of that," Allegretto said.
"In nine months, the work, most teachers will spend 10-12 hours a day," Huang said.
Teacher salaries require money, either from local residents through property taxes, state lawmakers through different budgeting decisions and/or a change to TABOR.
"We need help. We need help from the public. We need help from the lawmakers," Huang said. "I really appreciate the statistics, even though it's so depressing to look at this number."
"I'm calling for the federal government to play a much bigger role in this," Allegretto said.