Several hundred public school teachers rallied at the Colorado State Capitol in Denver Monday morning, demanding lawmakers fund schools and kill a bill targeting teacher pensions.
According to data from the National Education Association, Colorado ranked #25 out of 50 in per-pupil spending in 2017 Fall enrollment, with roughly $11,169 per student ($815 below the national average). That same data shows the average teacher salary in Colorado is $46,155, ranking Colorado #46 out of 50 states, plus Washington, DC, in average teacher pay, despite US News ranking the state’s economy as the #1 best in 2017. Roughly half of Colorado’s 178 school districts are currently operating on four-day workweeks due to a lack of teacher funding.
While the nation’s best economy may seem to cut corners in funding public schools and paying teachers, it’s very friendly to corporations. As the Denver Business Journal wrote last year, Colorado has some of the lowest corporate income taxes in the country. Out of all 44 states that levy a corporate income tax, Colorado’s is the third-lowest at just 4.63 percent (North Carolina has the lowest at 3 percent, followed by North Dakota at 4.31 percent).
In addition to a low corporate tax rate, Colorado has a bevy of corporate welfare programs in place that cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars per year. A 2012 investigation by the New York Times estimated that Colorado paid out at least $995 million in corporate tax incentives each year, amounting to 13 cents per dollar in the state budget. The manufacturing sector alone got nearly two-thirds of that money — $622 million — with agriculture coming in second at $241 million.
A 2017 report by Good Jobs First estimated that various corporate tax breaks cost Colorado more than $615 million. However, that number could go up if Amazon decides to build its HQ2 in Denver — which made the company’s “short list” of 20 cities who are potential hosts for the retail giant’s second corporate headquarters. According to the Denver Post, Colorado could end up giving Amazon more than $100 million in tax incentives if the company decides to build its new headquarters in Denver.
As the New York Times noted in its investigation, tracking the exact cost of corporate tax breaks — as well as the job creation associated with those breaks — is difficult due to a lack of transparency:
“A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.”
In the current school year, Colorado’s public schools are operating at an $828 million shortfall, according to the Colorado Education Association. Teachers rallying at the state capitol on Monday called on lawmakers to put a stop to corporate tax breaks until K-12 education funding is restored.
CO teachers asking lawmakers to freeze corporate tax breaks until $828 million neg. factor restored. They note: over past 15 years, their pay cut by more than 17% when adjusted for inflation, ranking 46th in nation. Half + districts on 4-day week to cut expenses. #edcolo #coleg
— Jenny Brundin (@CPRBrundin) April 16, 2018
“School funding is computers, school funding is resources, school funding is field trips, STEM classes, and arts enrichment and theatre programs, and all the things it takes to make a rich school experience,” Courtenay Whalen, a social studies teacher at Englewood Middle School, told Grit Post. “Our middle school and high school students all support us.”
The Monday rally brought out teachers from all over the Denver Metro area, including many from the Englewood school district, which closed due to more than 150 teachers in the district taking the day off to lobby legislators. One bill under consideration in a House committee on Monday afternoon was Senate Bill 200, which teachers came out to oppose as it would make significant cuts to the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA).
Lynn Acosta, a 30-year veteran educator at Ellis Elementary School in Denver, told Grit Post that underfunding education was a “nationwide epidemic,” adding that she was inspired by teachers protesting in Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and West Virginia.
“I’m retiring next year, but I’m out here doing this for the teachers who have been here five years, ten years, for the future,” Acosta said. “Right now, it’s not a career choice, it’s a three to five-year plan with what’s in place.”
Colorado’s low teacher pay is having a profoundly negative effect on teachers’ ability to live in the districts where they teach. According to real estate site Zumper’s April 2018 rent report, Denver ranks #17 out of the most expensive rental markets in the United States. Average home prices in the Denver area exceeded $500,000 for the first time in March 2018, according to the Denver Metro Association of Realtors.
“I don’t live in Englewood, I live in Aurora, because that’s where I can afford to buy a house,” Englewood High School teacher Tracey Lonn told Grit Post, referring to a community roughly 30 minutes away from where she teaches.
Despite increasing property values, Colorado doesn’t get a resulting increase in property tax revenue to fund schools, due to a provision known as the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR). As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported in 2017, Colorado is the only state to adopt TABOR due to its severe limitations on how much revenue can be collected based on inflation and population growth.
The state’s restrictive funding measures and housing prices have also detrimentally impacted teacher recruiting, according to Englewood Leadership Academy teacher Rebecca Raimonde.
“We’re trying to hire new teachers, and I know that we’ve gone to different job fairs in Ohio and Michigan, and those brand new teachers are coming here, but when they go around and try to find someplace to live, they leave,” Raimonde told Grit Post at the capitol.
“We cannot get a contract from any of these out-of-state teachers,” she continued. “Where are we going to get out 3,000 teacher deficit filled if we cannot bring in teachers from out of state? That’s a problem.”
Teachers from across the state are planning to return to the capitol on April 27 for another rally and lobbying day.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.