Colorado has highest pay gap for educators in the U.S.

New study says Colorado teachers make about 36% less than professionals with similar education

By: - August 23, 2022 5:00 am

A group of teachers participated in a walk-in at East High School in Denver on the morning of Jan. 25, 2021, to call for access to the COVID vaccine. It was the first day of in-person learning at East since the previous school year. (Photo by Tiffany Choi)

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute called out Colorado as having the highest pay gap for teachers compared to the rest of the country. 

The report says teachers are paid less than other non-teacher college graduates and that this gap is worse in Colorado than anywhere else. Colorado teachers’ weekly pay “penalty” compared to other non-teacher graduates is -35.9%, taking the lead of all states by at least 3 percentage points. The situation has only continued to worsen nationally over time, with the pay gap increasing as inflation rises and wages don’t. 

Other college graduates have seen their weekly wages increase from about $1,564 in 1996 to $2,009 in 2021 — good for $445. But for teachers, weekly wages have increased from $1,319 in 1996 to $1,348 in 2021 — a measly $29 increase. 

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Colleen O’Neil, an associate commissioner of educator talent with the Colorado Department of Education, said there is variety in teacher pay equity across the state, so it can be difficult to make sweeping conclusions. She works statewide to help with educator recruitment and retention.

“Applying it just carte blanche sometimes can be a little bit difficult and doesn’t help get to strategies all the time,” O’Neil said. “But it is definitely an indicator of a problem in Colorado that our superintendents and our hiring managers in districts would say has been a pretty challenging environment for them for years.”

O’Neil said the general pay structure for school districts is locally controlled by school boards, and she’s seen several districts make strides in recent years to increase starting pay. Another new solution she’s seen is districts modifying teacher’s workloads, with some cutting down to four day work weeks, like the 27J Schools in Brighton. 

Mike Maes, president of the Pueblo Education Association, said it’s unfortunate to see how high Colorado teachers’ pay gap is, given the cost of living in the state. He said teachers are highly educated and trained people, and should be paid as such.

“It’s just really difficult for teachers to survive on the salaries that they’re being given,” Maes said. 

One of the biggest difficulties in Pueblo is recruiting and retaining educators, Maes said. He said that as of Monday the district had 11 elementary school openings, 12 middle school openings, two high school openings and four special education teacher openings.

It's mind boggling to think about how we are really pushing people out of education ... Things keep piling on them and nothing gets taken off.

– Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association

While Pueblo has a relatively low cost of living compared to other parts of Colorado, Maes said it’s still hard to recruit educators with it being a smaller, more rural area. 

Rob Gould, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, said he’s always talked about improving teacher salaries throughout the 25 years he’s been teaching, and EPI’s report highlights the challenges educators face. Gould said he’s saddened, but not surprised, to see Colorado as having the highest gap. He said educators in the state have been in a crisis for a few years that will only continue to accelerate if action isn’t taken soon.

“This is something we’ve lived with for a very long time,” Gould said. “If anything comes from this work, I hope that this helps to wake up our voters in Colorado to really see that we need to do something about this challenge today, yesterday even.” 

Gould said he’d like to see the Colorado Legislature take a serious look at the issue as soon as possible. With much school funding coming from the state budget, he thinks this could be part of the reason why teacher pay gaps have only worsened. Gould said measures like the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the “budget stabilization factor” — a mechanism by which lawmakers have withheld money owed to schools — only take funding away from schools for both students and educators. 

O’Neil said she’s seen some attempts from the state Legislature to get additional tax dollars to schools. She said other states have implemented minimum salary schedules for teachers, something Colorado has yet to do. 

The teacher wage penalty hit its record high in 2021, which is when teachers and students alike were adjusting to new methods of learning as the coronavirus pandemic changed education. With the addition of the pandemic to an already dire financial situation for the profession, teacher shortages have also grown. Gould said educators are being asked to pick up more and more responsibilities every day as substitute teachers are also dwindling and class sizes are growing due to so many educator openings.

“It’s mind boggling to think about how we are really pushing people out of education,” Gould said. “Things keep piling on them and nothing gets taken off.”

Teacher openings remain

Gould said an educator he knew had been with Denver Public Schools for almost 30 years retired last year after her daughter called her out for always working on the weekends. He said he and his wife, who is also an educator, have even had the conversation with their kids about how difficult it could be for them if they decide to go into education.

Between the end of last school year and now, Gould said DPS has hired 630 new teachers, with 150 openings still remaining. He said Denver is lucky that its voters have continued to support its public education system, but that same support isn’t necessarily seen statewide. 

“In the last couple of years I think we’ve done a lot to try to support education,” Gould said about Colorado. “It’s just that we’re coming from such a deficit that the strides that we’re making are not really felt or seen.” 

EPI’s report also found that while teachers’ benefits are supposed to help balance the weight, it hasn’t been enough to offset the growing pay penalty. In 2021, benefits offset the 23.5% average wage penalty nationally by 9.3%, which still puts teachers below average by 14.2%. 

O’Neil said it’s disappointing to think that potentially great teachers are being deterred from the profession because of low pay, because she said there are so many rewarding benefits to being a teacher. Another potential strategy she said could help is ensuring teachers enter the profession debt-free with the help of grants and scholarships. 

“That is a big indicator of success long term of being able to retain teachers, is that they can make their monthly bills,” O’Neil said. “All teachers entering the profession should have a living wage, and that study is saying that may not be what’s happening for us.”

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Lindsey Toomer
Lindsey Toomer

Lindsey Toomer covers politics, social justice and other stories for Newsline. She formerly reported on city government at the Denver Gazette and on Colorado mountain town government, education and environment at the Summit Daily News. Toomer graduated from the Pennsylvania State University, where she also served as managing editor of The Daily Collegian, with degrees in journalism and global studies.

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