What would Colorado be like if its public schools were the best in the nation? That’s a question posed in a new survey from Colorado Succeeds and the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, with results unveiled Tuesday in a forum at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
That question, and how they would move Colorado in that direction, also was posed to six candidates for governor who attended the Tuesday forum.
The state currently ranks 45th in high school graduation rates, while at the same time the state has the top-rated economy in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report and as cited in the survey. Only 28 out of 100 Colorado high school graduates go on to obtain some kind of post-secondary education within the four years after graduating high school, the survey found.
Colorado also has the second-highest demand for workers with post-secondary training, just behind Washington, D.C., according to the Roundtable’s Kristin Strohm.
The survey also polled employers, finding that 77 percent are having trouble finding workers with the right skills sets. The booming economy and the lack of workers is not a sustainable model, Strohm added.
If Colorado were to improve graduation rates, both at the high school and college level, it would add 57,600 graduates to the workforce, the survey found. Those graduates would earn $8.5 billion per year, with $1 billion going to state revenues and cost savings in corrections.
The survey said 95 percent of employers believe the ability to attract and retain quality teachers is the top challenge facing education; a voter survey pegged it even higher, at 98 percent.
The report recommended seven principles for the next governor to follow in efforts to approve education, which include funding students, not systems; empowering “local learning providers,” focusing on skills mastery for students rather than “seat time,” and providing parents with high-quality options, regardless of income level.
Then it came time for the gubernatorial candidates to talk about how they would move Colorado forward.
Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton said he would rely on a leadership council made of lawmakers like state Reps. Bob Rankin and Millie Hamner, who he said would come up with a roadmap and a plan.
“Colorado is a role model for other states,” Stapleton said, pointing to Denver Public Schools’ Superintendent Tom Boasberg and his championing of charter schools. He also chastised spending on school-district administration, pointing out that while student and teacher populations have grown by 7 percent, administrative spending is up 20 percent.
Stapleton’s reference to the education council drew grins from Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne, one of four Democrats running in the June 26 primary. Lynne pointed out that she’s in charge of the education council cited by Stapleton.
The former Kaiser Permanente executive called for an effort to ask voters for more funding for education but said the state has to present a compelling vision for those dollars first. The state is still underfunding education, she said, although the 2018-19 budget, with an additional $150 million dedicated to paying down the state debt to K-12, was an improvement.
And she also said the conversation around education should also be about equity. Lynne pointed out that few in the room represent people of color, whose high school and college graduation rates are far below the average.
Republican business owner Doug Robinson said that as governor he would set a goal of raising graduation rates by 5 percent, with a second goal of getting 50 percent of students performing at grade level, up from the current rate of 40 percent.
Robinson added he would expand choice and accountability, including charter and online schools and push for educational savings accounts. But he also said he would put more money into classrooms and incentivize districts to spend less on administration and more on teacher pay, books and computers.
Democrat and former state Sen. Michael Johnston pointed to his education plan, which he said would “attract great talent” in the classroom, set high-quality standards and with fewer but fairer student assessments.
Johnston said the world that he grew up in, with high school graduation at 18 and college completed by 22, is “not the world we live in. … We will need to see a fundamental shift in how we view education,” Johnston said, given that today’s college graduates could experience eight to 10 different careers throughout their lifetime. That means lifelong access to public education and skills those graduates will need for the jobs of the future.
Johnston also said he would seek a ballot measure in 2020 to change the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights to remove the refunds of excess revenue that TABOR calls for, which would help solve one of the state’s biggest problems: its below-average funding of public education.
Republican Greg Lopez didn’t present a plan; he instead talked about the ability of people to aspire to the American dream.
“We all have a responsibility, not just government,” the former Parker mayor said. “Having a job is a blessing. We just need opportunity.”
Lopez noted that not everyone plans to go to college and that it’s wrong to tell people that they must have a degree to attain the American dream.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Polis was in Washington, D.C. but sent a video.
“Education has been at the center of my public service,” the e-commerce entrepreneur said, pointing to the schools he’s founded, and cited his work on the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. He called for free full-day kindergarten, noting it is the best start to education a child can have, and to put more money into the classrooms, which he said will end the teacher shortage.
Democrat Cary Kennedy and Republican Victor Mitchell did not attend the Tuesday forum.
Survey results can be found here.