It was November, and Casey Cunningham had a decision to make: She could pay her car registration or buy holiday gifts.
Cunningham was already delinquent on her student loan payments. After shelling out for her rent, car and utilities, she was left with less than $1,000 to cover all of her other expenses. The third-grade teacher at Aspen Elementary School realized that she once again needed to take on a second gig to make ends meet. In the past, she’d turned to babysitting, tutoring or waitressing. She was hoping to avoid doing so again because of the burnout it caused.
“Everybody has a second job,” the 37-year-old said. “A lot of teachers are month-to-month… Sometimes when you have to go to that second job, it causes a little bit of resentment. I’m working so hard, yet I have to go be on my feet for another six to eight hours so I can afford to live without having to worry.”
Cunningham began waitressing two nights a week—and made nearly as much as her take-home teaching salary for the entire week. The situation has made her question why she continues to teach when she could make more money working less hours, with less stress, by doing something else.
“I have that passion to teach so I try to do both, but I’m completely drained,” she said. “I’d like to be able to have one profession where I can have some healthy balance.”
Colorado’s teacher salaries are among the lowest in the nation. The National Education Association ranked the state 48th in the country in 2021 for its average starting salary of $35,292. State educators make about 71 cents for every dollar that other professionals with similar levels of education and years of experience earn. A Colorado School Finance Project report found that teacher salaries in the Centennial State are $8,000 less than the national average.
The pay disparity is particularly pronounced in the state’s rural districts, which are defined by their size, distance from the nearest large urban area and a student enrollment of 6,500 or less. They comprise more than 80% of Colorado’s school districts and range from the ranching town of Kim in Las Animas County to tourist hot spots like Aspen, where Cunningham teaches.
Colorado does not set minimum teacher-salary requirements or a statewide teacher-salary schedule (24 states do one or the other). Instead, local school boards determine salary schedules for their teachers, which creates significant variability. For example, a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree working in Campo School District RE-6 in the southeast corner of the state earns $27,500, while the same experience in Denver Public Schools earns $47,291, with significantly more room for growth.
The cost of living also varies widely across the state, of course. But pay schedules don’t always reflect that. According to MIT’s living wage calculator, a livable salary for a single adult with no children working full-time in Baca County (where Campo is located) is $30,930. Based on the school district’s salary schedule, a teacher with only a bachelor’s degree won’t earn that until their ninth year of work. In Denver County, a livable wage for that same individual is $38,563, which they’ll surpass in their first year (though finding affordable housing is an entirely different challenge).
“Our teacher pay across the board in Colorado, but more pressingly in these rural areas, is not sustainable for an average quality of life,” said State Senator Rachel Zenzinger, an educator who still teaches between legislative sessions.
Cunningham relocated to the mountains from the East Coast in 2013 for the same reasons most people do: Hiking. Skiing. Space to breathe. She knew the move from Virginia would require a pay cut, but she didn’t realize how steep it would be when she signed on with Aspen School District.
In nine years, her salary has risen by about $7,000, barely keeping up with inflation. Her current salary is in the mid-$50,000s—just $1,000 more than she was making in her first year at her previous teaching job in Virginia.
The only reason she’s been able to afford to stay in Aspen is because of employee housing, which costs her less than half of what she would have to set aside for an apartment on the open market. Because Cunningham is single, she said the district wouldn’t allow her to live on her own, so she shares a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot townhome just outside of town with a fellow educator. (In an email, Aspen School District Housing Program Manager Elen Woods-Mitchell clarified that “one-bedroom units are in high demand so when we are short on inventory, we ask some staff to partner up. We find it’s also helpful for new hires who are new to Aspen.”)
Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh did not respond to multiple requests for comment or a list of emailed questions. However, he did indicate, via the district’s communications lead, that a teacher salary review is in process. Cunningham also shared that she recently completed a salary survey—an acknowledgement, she believes, that improvements need to be made.
For now, she feels stuck. “I can’t really move out of employee housing because I can’t afford it,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m not free. I feel as if I’m owned by the school.”
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Teaching used to be considered a stable, middle-class career. Nowadays, soaring housing prices, rising costs of living and inflation, among other issues, mean more teachers are struggling to get by in many parts of Colorado.
Josh Propfe taught special education in Leadville from 2017 to 2019. He left—he’s now based in New Mexico, where his classes are smaller, and he has the help of an aide—because the town was getting too expensive to live in. His starting salary in the high-country town was around $34,000. (Lake County School District’s current salary schedule starts about $10,000 higher.) He rented a room in a house with two roommates for $300 per month.
“It’s a skilled profession, and you would think that you’d be able to live on your own or afford to not live like you’re in college still or something,” Propfe said. “The schools obviously really appreciate their employees and value the people that work there and treat people well. It’s just that’s what they can do with what they have… It trickles down and causes a lot of issues.”
Teacher pay is a thorny topic. We reached out to four superintendents across the state for comment; none responded. The Colorado Education Association—the state’s largest teacher’s union—and the Colorado Center for Rural Education, which recruits, places and supports educators in rural areas, also were not available to respond to questions by publication of this story.
Nationally, teacher salaries are expected to stagnate, which will likely worsen an already existing teacher shortage. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has stirred a record number of teachers to leave, or consider leaving, the profession. Those who have remained are now often burdened with increased workloads.
Suzie Mitchell was born and raised in Lamar, a tight-knit ranching community in southeast Colorado. She’s based her professional career in town, too; Mitchell has worked as an educator in Lamar School District RE-2 for 20 years. Currently, she’s a Culturally & Linguistically Diverse Education (CLDE) teacher for kindergarten through second grade, where she works with students whose first language is not English.
“Every year, the workload gets bigger,” Mitchell said. Though enrollment is lower, teacher and staff vacancies aren’t filled when people leave, she explained, so class sizes have grown. The number of tenured teachers is also down, meaning classes are more often led by less experienced educators.
For students, that translates to less consistency in their education, a reduction in the quality of their schooling and a loss of more varied programming like technology and arts classes. A 2019 report by the Economic Policy Institute noted that “a lack of sufficient, qualified teachers threatens students’ ability to learn” and that “instability in a school’s teacher workforce (i.e., high turnover and/or high attrition) negatively affects student achievement and diminishes teacher effectiveness and quality.”
During the pandemic, Mitchell was asked to substitute at least once per week for teachers out sick. Since her CLDE classes are offered based on need (either pulling students out during specific sessions or joining them in their regular classrooms), Mitchell’s programs would be cancelled as a result.
“We’re on a four-day week, so that’s losing 25% of [CLDE] instruction for one day,” she said. It’s become a much rarer occurrence in recent months, but still happens occasionally.
Mitchell’s starting salary amounted to around $1,000 per month after taxes. Two decades later, her take-home pay is closer to $3,000 per month. It’s still not enough. She loves her primary job and feels fulfilled by the work, but with three kids at home, she has to buffer that income by doing paid respite care for a family member and singing at special occasions like weddings and quinceañeras through her church; she also leads a weekly after-school enrichment class, which pays extra. She and her husband were finally able to buy their first home two years ago, but they’re worried about paying for their eldest’s upcoming wedding.
“It took me a really long time to get to a decent paycheck. I still feel like it’s not adequate. I feel like our district really wants to help us, but they don’t have the money,” said the 42-year-old. “At the state level, if they say we’re going to pay down this Budget Stabilization Factor”—a tool that adjusted the state funding formula for schools during the 2009 recession—“schools will have the opportunity to pay people what they deserve. [That’s] what will keep people in the school and just keep a solid, steady force for these kids—not just have all these people going through a revolving door.”
The Budget Stabilization Factor is essentially “an ongoing debt to K-12,” said Tracie Rainey, executive director of the Colorado School Finance Project. In order to balance the state budget, lawmakers withhold money that, constitutionally, is intended to be spent on schools. As a result, between 2009 and 2021, Colorado schools lost out on more than $9 billion. (The state marijuana tax revenue that is put toward schools is allocated to infrastructure, not teacher salaries. And COVID-19 relief funds were a one-time infusion, and also can’t be used for ongoing salaries.)
“We’re a state that underfunds education,” Rainey added. “The state needs to invest more in order to give districts the stability and the assurance that they can hire people.”
That hasn’t happened. The state legislature has passed some bills to try and Band-Aid the issue, but funding remains a critical concern both at the state and local level.
“It’s a problem,” said State Representative Barbara McLachlan. Even though the current proposed Budget Stabilization Factor is the lowest it’s been since 2010, she noted there isn’t the money in the state budget to divert more toward schools: “I wish we could just write [teachers] a big check to say ‘thank you and we appreciate you,’ but our hands are tied, unfortunately.”
In 2021, lawmakers approved the Educator Pay Raise Fund, but it relies on a state tax revenue ballot measure being passed by November 2027. In other words: There’s currently no money in the fund. Colorado legislators also approved some additional changes that will invest almost $500 million more in students, which could trickle down, in part, to educator salaries. An educator loan forgiveness bill sponsored by McLachlan and Zenzinger, both Democrats, was signed into law in 2019 and repays up to $25,000 in qualified loans for educators who take jobs in rural areas or other “hard-to-fill positions.”
“It incentivizes educators to stay in the profession,” Zenzinger said of the legislation. “It frees up some of their salaries so they can address the high cost of living. It creates some appeal for people that are thinking of going into teaching.”
This year has seen additional focus on school funding at the state level. A proposed amendment to the 2022-23 state budget legislation would allocate at least $251.6 million of the General Fund towards increasing teacher salaries via education funding to districts; it’s not expected to end up in the final budget bill, however. In February, a bill was introduced that could partially address the state teacher shortage by helping student teachers pay for licensure exams and living expenses. The Joint Budget Committee outlined an $80 million cash infusion for special education in their latest budget proposal. And a number of citizen-led initiatives to better retain and pay teachers have been proposed for the 2022 ballot but have not yet qualified.
More needs to be done, Zenzinger said, and not just by the state legislature. “Local communities need to do their part as well and start raising their local mill levies, and get to a place where this is more of a 50/50 [partnership between the state and school districts],” she said.
Students themselves have also pushed for better pay for their teachers: In October, Chalkbeat Colorado covered proposed legislation by three Campo high school students that would raise the minimum salary for rural teachers to $40,000.
Cunningham knows she’s blessed to live where she does and to have access to employer-sponsored housing. But the stress of deficient pay remains for her and many of her colleagues across the state.
“At my old job, I didn’t have to worry about having a second job and the stress of not seeing people, dating—all those kinds of things didn’t take the hit, either,” she said. “I moved here, and even though I wanted to enjoy the mountains, you don’t always get to because you’re working.”