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EDITORIAL: Colorado teachers deprived, as state splurges on Medicaid

By: The Gazette editorial board
July 31, 2017 Updated: August 1, 2017 at 10:35 am
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photo - Low pay has Colorado teachers fleeing the state, adding to a teacher shortage at a time when 30 percent of Colorado teachers have reached retirement age. (Photo from neatoday.org)
Low pay has Colorado teachers fleeing the state, adding to a teacher shortage at a time when 30 percent of Colorado teachers have reached retirement age. (Photo from neatoday.org) 

Add a teacher shortage to Colorado's crisis of crumbling highways, while Medicaid consumes more of our money each year.

A Denver Post news story Monday describes a "massive K-12 teacher shortage," of about 3,000. Nearly 30 percent of the state's teachers are of retirement age, meaning the shortage will get much worse. An April 13 Post headline called the shortage a "crisis."

A school district in northwest Colorado could not attract a single applicant for an advertised teaching position. The Post reported the average wage of rural Colorado teachers at $22,700, with some carrying college loan debt of $50,000 or more.

The cause of this shortage is no mystery. We don't pay teachers enough, because we don't make them a priority. We purportedly cannot afford more for schools, but we can extend Medicaid to able-bodied, working-aged adults at a growing expense.

In Wyoming, which rejected Medicaid expansion, teachers earn an average of $10,000 more. That state has no income tax, and the cost of living is substantially lower.

"Teachers in northern Colorado are moving across the state line to Wyoming to automatically get a pay raise of at least $10,000 a year," the Post said.

That is troubling at face value, and becomes an understatement upon further scrutiny. Assume a teacher making $49,000 in Fort Collins moves to earn $59,000 in the southern Wyoming city of Cheyenne. By most references, $49,000 and $59,000 are average salaries for experienced teachers in Colorado and Wyoming respectively.

We ran those numbers through Sperling's Cost of Living calculator, which said:

"A salary of $49,000 in Fort Collins, Colorado could decrease to $39,295 in Cheyenne, Wyoming." That means a Colorado teacher gets a $20,000 boost for crossing the state line. We might want to fix that.

Students and their teachers fare well in Wyoming because the state spends almost 25 percent of its budget on education, compared with about 20 percent on health care. That is how it used to be here, before the Affordable Care Act and the decision by Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislators to expand Medicaid to residents who are not poor.

Before Medicaid expansion, education made up 25.3 percent of Colorado's budget in 2012. Medicaid consumed 20.7 percent. Our budget looked a lot like Wyoming's, with education appearing as a high priority.

Today, education gets 20 percent of Colorado's budget and Medicaid gets 42 percent. Medicaid spending in Colorado has increased by nearly 70 percent in the past five years. The program consumes about 26 percent of the general fund. Federal assistance for the program will continue to decrease through 2019, causing the program to consume more state money.

Few would dispute the propriety of state government supporting education. We cannot say the same of state government providing health insurance for able-bodied, sound-minded, working-aged adults.

The Post told of teachers feeling disrespected, held in lower regard than "doctors and lawyers" and other professionals. That should not be the case. Most who succeed in life have a good teacher to thank. If teachers get no respect, it is probably because politicians have taken them for granted by neglecting their pay.

The Legislature and governor need to reprioritize spending before our last good teachers flee the state on ramshackle roads.

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