Inspired by teachers in other states, Colorado educators brought demands for more funding to the streets on Monday.
Low funding and teacher pay is making the job less attractive to college graduates, prompting teachers to leave the profession early and leading to a shortage of fully qualified teachers, the Colorado Education Association says.
Dressed in the red T-shirts of the #RedForEd campaign that started in Arizona, they waved signs and chanted as they marched in front of the state Capitol. In the Denver area, the Englewood School District said it closed after more than 150 educators -- 70% of its workforce -- called in to take a personal day for the rally.
One of those teachers, Jessica Tarkanian, brought her 7-year-old daughter to Monday's rally. She said she's protesting to "support our retirement, fund our schools, and make sure we get what we need for our kids."
A teacher at Cherrelyn Elementary School, Tarkanian said she recently moved in with another family to save money and make ends meet. She says she's been teaching for 10 years, but earns the same as a teacher with three years of experience.
"I'm not sure I can do it anymore," she said.
Colorado's educators have been energized by teacher walkouts and demonstrations in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, CEA President Kerrie Dallman told CNN. Teachers in West Virginia won a 5% pay raise in March after a nine-day strike.
"Our members are energized and fed up by the constant year-over-year chronic underfunding of our public schools," Dallman said.
Among the issues:
-- Teacher pay: The CEA says Colorado educators' average pay has dropped by more than 17% when adjusting for inflation over the last 15 years. In 2016, Colorado ranked 46th in the country for average teachers' salary, according to a report by the National Education Association.
-- Education funding: Colorado effectively has underfunded its schools by $828 million, the CEA says, because the state hasn't kept up with a state constitutional mandate passed in the last decade to increase funds each year by at least the rate of inflation.
Raising taxes to make up the money isn't easy, because the state's 1992 taxpayer bill of rights demands that voters approve any tax hikes. In a recent survey, teachers reported spending an average of $656 yearly on school supplies and expenses for students, the CEA said.
Third grade teacher Libby Bucher said she referees and coaches sports on the side to make ends meet. She said she has so much debt she had to stop putting money in her retirement account and cancel her life insurance.
Yet the single mom says she has never thought of leaving teaching. "I don't look at teaching as a job, it's who I am."
Residents join teachers for walk-in
Beyond the state capital, residents of Fort Collins joined educators in a walk-in outside Webber Middle School.
Laura Schachet is a media specialist at the school. She joined others in the demonstration, waving a sign that read, "We -our students & want the CO legislature to fix this!"
"Our generous voters in Fort Collins have historically supported PSD, teachers and support staff. We are asking the State to do so for PSD and all CO districts," said Schachet, a teacher for 18 years.