Public education in crisis: Report highlights risk factors, problem areas |

Public education in crisis: Report highlights risk factors, problem areas

Educator shortages, burnout and inadequate funding plague Colorado’s public schools, according to a new report from the Colorado Education Association

After nearly two years in the pandemic, Colorado’s public education system is near crisis as districts deal with a combination of inadequate funding, educator burnout and staffing shortages.
Vail Daily File

It’s been a tough year for educators. Between navigating the pandemic and its effects on learning, dealing with staffing shortages and more, teachers are struggling more than ever. And according to the new 2021 Colorado State of Education Report from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s public education system is “near crisis.”

The report — which was released last week and is based on publicly available state education data, news articles, research and surveys of the associations members from December 2020 to October 2021 — highlights three main areas that the association says are posing the biggest risks to Colorado’s public education system. This includes a high percentage of educator burnout, inadequate funding and the growing educator shortage.

“The way we fund our public schools and value educators is unsustainable,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, a high school counselor and president of the Colorado Education Association, in a press release. “We are at a crossroads; what kind of state do we want to be? One where chronic underfunding short-changes our children and drives high-quality educators to surrounding states, or even worse, out of the profession altogether? Or one that is proud of delivering an exceptional education to prepare all students in every zip code to follow their dreams and be successful?”

The Colorado Education Association is a statewide union of educators with chapters across the state — including the local Eagle County Education Association. In Colorado, it has over 39,000 members that include not only K-12 teachers, but faculty, counselors, social workers, nurses, bus drivers and more.

Karen Kolibaba, president of the local chapter of the association and a fifth grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary School, spoke to the Vail Daily last week and identified that many of these challenges — namely staffing shortages, insufficient pay and stressful working conditions — exist in the Eagle County public school district.

Educator burnout

The Colorado Education Association conducted a survey of 1,400 of its members across the state this fall and found that not only do they feel undervalued, but they feel that this year is worse than the last.

Survey results showed that over half felt this year was “significantly or somewhat worse” than last year.

One of the factors that was identified as worse than last year was the substitute shortage. Four out of five respondents reported that this was significantly worse than last year and that it was “putting additional pressure on educators.”

Eagle County Schools has been open about its substitute shortage this school year, and has also implemented a number of changes to attempt to better recruit and retain these guest teachers.

At the start of the year, the local district identified that while it had 120 guest teachers on its list, it had only 20 actively filling positions. Plus, the district’s fill rate — or the percentage of teacher absences being filled by a substitute — was around 30% to 35%, compared to its normal rate of around 60%. This meant that all other teacher absences were being filled by other teachers as well as administrators, including the superintendent. For teachers, already overburdened, this added significantly to their workload.

Throughout the school year, the district has found ways to attempt not only reducing the impact on teachers, but to hire new substitutes. This included offering hiring incentives and a salary increase for guest teachers as well as offering pay for teachers that filled in for their colleagues.

Kolibaba, last week, stated that while the substitute shortage was getting better, it was still creating challenges for educators.

“I know the district has done a lot to encourage more subs, but it’s still an ongoing problem and teachers are giving up their planning time in order to cover for colleagues,” she said.

On top of the added pressures of these sub shortages — as well as staffing shortages — the Association’s survey found that only 1% reported that they felt very valued by state elected officials and 10% said the same about their district. However, they did report feeling more highly valued by the school and their colleagues, just under 40% and 70%, respectively.

With high stress environments and high burnout, educators identified who they do, and don’t, feel valued by in the 2021 State of Education Report.
Colorado Education Association/Courtesy photo

With this, the majority of those surveyed — 58.8% — reported that adequate pay and benefits was the most important factor to feel valued and respected as an educator. This was followed by autonomy to do your job without interference and working conditions.

The report also notes that Colorado ranks No. 49 out of 50 states plus Washington, D.C. for competitive teacher pay.

While teacher pay is something Eagle County Schools is working to increase — it approved a salary increase earlier this month in negotiations with the local teacher’s union — it still isn’t enough for many educators.

“I do know that some of our colleagues who have left the profession, this year and before this year, found that they couldn’t continue working to the pace that we’ve been working at for so long with their current compensation,” Kolibaba said last week. “Many of our educators work multiple jobs, just in order to live here in our valley.”

She went on to say that while this most recent increase is a step in the right direction, the local union remains “hopeful to increase the base salary even further.”

Inadequate funding

According to data from the U.S. Census, Colorado falls 16% below the national average on per-pupil funding in public education.
Colorado Education Association/Courtesy Photo

However, while the district has made attempts to increase salaries for all its staff, it faces an insurmountable challenge when it comes to the statewide funding of education in Colorado.

Frustrations over inadequate funding are not new in Colorado’s public education system. Earlier this year, Eagle County Schools Superintendent Philip Qualman expressed his “outrage” with this inadequacy.

“I’m tasked with understanding and working within a system of K-12 education and therein lies my outrage. I’m appalled that Colorado ranks 43rd out of 51 states, including D.C., in K-12 spending,” he said. “I’m frustrated that in a state with such a great quality of life, we place such a low value on educating our children.”

The Association’s 2021 report highlights the inadequacies in Colorado, boiling it down to both low educator pay and low per-pupil funding. According to the report and Census data, Colorado falls $2,158, or 16%, below the national average on per-pupil funding

Part of the reason that the funding is so low is that, due to the implementation of a negative factor, or the Budget Stabilization Factor, as its been named. This factor was put in place in 2010 during the financial crisis to cut education funding without forsaking Amendment 21, which among other things, requires the state to increase the per-pupil school funding with the rate of inflation.

Even though this year, the state reduced the factor, the cost of it to schools continues to rise each year. Since 2010, Colorado schools have missed out on nearly $10 billion in funding due to the stabilization factor. The report notes that this means, “a senior in high school today has never experienced a fully-funded public education.”

In June of this year, Sandra Farrell, chief operations officer at Eagle County Schools, said that eliminating this factor all together would be one major thing the state could do to increase its per-pupil spending — though even by doing that Colorado school districts would continue to rank at the low end,” Farrell told the Vail Daily at the time.

“Adequately funding and adjusting the [School Finance Act] formula to provide equitable funding for all districts across the state would go a long way in making a difference for our students and staff,” she said.

Educator Shortage

The 2021 State of Education report highlighted that 67% of the Colorado Education Association members surveyed in October were considering leaving the profession in the near future. This is a 27% increase from December of last year.

Both Kolibaba and Qualman have recently noted an exodus of educators from the local district.

“Not only were we not able to fill all our positions that we had from last year, but we’ve also had multiple educators that left during the school year,” Kolibaba said last week.

At the Dec. 8 school board meeting, Qualman said the district was “losing people to other sectors.” He also added that simultaneously, the hiring market was the worst he’s seen in his career.

The association’s report highlighted this as well. The report states that in October 2021, a review of school district website’s shows more than 3,300 open positions — 1,125 licensed positions and 2,251 uncertified support positions — in public schools across Colorado.

As of Dec. 8, Eagle County Schools said it had around 60 vacant positions in the district, a similar number to the start of the year. In reviewing the personnel lists — which are approved as part of the consent agenda at each Board of Education meeting and show new hires, transfers, open positions, resignations and other personnel changes — the district has had a steady flow of both resignations and new hires, while many positions continue to remain vacant.

As previously noted, Eagle County Schools is working closely with its local teacher’s union to improve some of the conditions causing educators to leave. Negotiations have taken place on numerous occasions since the start of the year and are expected to continue beginning with the next negotiations meeting on Jan. 12.

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