These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

A+ Colorado: Letters to Our Next Governor

A+ Colorado believes this fall’s gubernatorial race is one of the most critical elections in recent memory. That is why we’re dedicating space to it every month moving forward and publishing “Letters to Our Next Governor” from A+ Colorado and thought-leaders across the state.  

Colorado has a critical election this fall determining who will set the agenda for the future of our state.  We are fortunate; Colorado has a large field of candidates. Many excellent Republican and Democrat leaders are campaigning to be Colorado’s next Governor.  The choice for Colorado Governor will likely be a bellwether not only for our state but the nation. Colorado is a purple state but trending blue politically with a focus on small government, a hot economy, and growing rural/urban divides. Colorado’s changing demographics represent the future of America.

Our next Governor will have to set policies that allow for us not only to keep up but thrive relative to other states while protecting the environment and improving the quality of life. Our state has some remarkable challenges and huge opportunities on every issue including transportation, the environment, taxes, housing and economic development.  Colorado continues to grow as we shift quickly from an industrial to a digital economy with three-quarters of our workforce requiring a post-secondary certificate or degree by 2020. The expectations for today’s high school and college graduates are higher than ever given the rise of the robots.  We reflected on what is needed educationally to ensure that we keep up with the digital economy. 

Economic growth, along with the overall health of our community is directly tied to public education.  Education is our best return on investment over the long-term.  It is why every country that has struggled to catch up with the United States over the last fifty years has invested greater amounts of money in early childhood education, K-12, and higher education.   

Colorado’s economic success has been as much about the state’s geography, and ability to attract highly-educated people from other places.  We are the great beneficiary of other states’ early childhood to higher education pipelines. Colorado can thank the University of Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, and California for much of the state’s talent.  While Colorado has made some progress in graduating more students from Colorado, we are far from the 74% with higher education degrees needed to fill job projections in less than five years.

While most policymakers know that quality public education is the engine for both individual and collective opportunity, few leaders are able to focus on improving public education because it is both a long game fraught with political risks and a short-game filled with few, if any, quick returns.  It is far simpler to build a road or even a fast speed train along the front range.

Colorado has been fortunate to have had some great education leaders in the last thirty years. Governor Roy Romer (D) led the development of a state system tied to a set of expectations for what all Colorado students should know and be able to do. His successor, Governor Bill Owens (R), expanded school choice and promoted the development of high-quality charters that serve low-income students.  Both Governors have had a lasting positive influence on Colorado’s public schools.

While there has been a long list of reforms or improvements to Colorado’s K-12 education system over the last decade-plus, there has been little substantive improvement across the state.  Yes, a few districts like Denver have improved, and we now have a growing number of schools that better serve low-income students, but the overall system seems stuck with no comprehensive improvement as measured by the nation’s report card, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Colorado was recently ranked 25th with a “C” rating by Education Week, and our rating has not changed much relative to other states over the last decade or more. We recently reflected on the need to focus not just on state policy but also on school districts given Colorado’s unique local control environment.  The action in Colorado regarding education programs, human capital, school design and accountability is at the district—not the state level—as it may be in other states.

Many countries and states have much higher educational attainment levels than Colorado. Colorado is somewhere in the middle of states nationally on achievement and towards the bottom of states when comparing education spending or college going. Given state and international comparisons, we know it is possible to change. South Korea went from one of the most poorly educated nations on the planet in the 1960s to now arguably the most educated nation through thoughtful investments in improving and building their system.  South Korea now boasts the most educated population age 25-34 on earth with  98% percent having some sort of college degree. Sadly, Colorado’s post-secondary degree attainment rate is stuck at about 30% with wide variations by race and income background.  

We know Governors can have a significant impact on education policy and practice.  Two interesting examples can be found with a Democratic California Governor from the 60’s and a recent Republican Governor from Tennessee.  

Pat Brown, the father of California’s current governor, may be best remembered for building one of the most effective K-12 and public college systems in America through the California Master Plan. While California’s K-12 system has fallen into disrepair, the California higher education system, arguably the best in the world,  has fueled California’s economy for nearly seventy years. Education matters and will matter even more as Colorado competes with Singapore, Germany, Mumbai, and San Jose.   

Governor Bill Haslam, the outgoing Republican Governor of Tennessee, will be remembered for being a transformative education leader in his state. Resisting calls from the right wing of his party, he stewarded massive investments that have led to dramatic increases in college attainment, dramatic achievement gains and a 21st-century accountability system to increase effectiveness.  

Two different Governors in very different states, with very different politics and policies but both having far-reaching positive impacts on public education in their states.

Other states have shown it can be done and Colorado can do far better.    

Join the Conversation!

Over the next seven months, A+ Colorado will be publishing “Letters to Our Next Governor” from education thought leaders across the state. We would also like to hear from you on what should be shared with our next Governor.  You can submit ideas on topics and suggestions here

Many of the candidates competing in this May’s party primaries have some interesting ideas on how to improve education but most of these will either not have a substantive impact on the whole system or will only provide a marginal impact on PK-12.  Hey, anything helps, but we are pushing for bold efforts that will set us on the right course for the next twenty years.

We will share a series of letters over the months leading up to the election to stir debate on a variety of topics.   Our letters to Colorado’s next Governor will cover a range of questions –

  • School Funding: How should school finance and funding be organized? How much is “adequate” and how should it be distributed to students, schools, and districts?
  • Schools: How do we create and support schools that meet the needs of all students and prepare students for work, college and life?
  • Teachers and School Leaders: How do we ensure that we recruit, train, support and retain the most effective educators at every level and in every geography of our state’s public education system?  
  • Birth to College and Career: How do we create a system of supports for children to learn and grow from birth through to higher education?  How do we create effective early childhood education programs across Colorado and improve higher education while ensuring that each of these systems better connect to K-12 education?
  • Innovation: How should we invest in new innovative programs and schools to better serve the most disadvantaged students? How should we design systems to make certain that we know what is and is not working?

We look forward to inspiring conversation and debate.  The campaigns, the candidates, and their campaign promises matter, but it will be what they do or don’t do over the next four years that will make a difference for Colorado’s students and our collective well-being.