GUEST COLUMN: Give Colorado's neediest kids a chance to succeed right now

By: Luke Ragland
February 14, 2017 Updated: February 16, 2017 at 8:00 am
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What is the best way to improve Colorado's lowest-performing schools? Ask the "experts" and you'll likely get as many different answers as there are seats at Coors Field. Some will claim that more money is all they need to improve, others note that choice and competition often leads to better student outcomes, still others will point to specific models like Montessori or classical education. The best approach is hotly disputed, and the timelines for implementing these strategies and seeing significant results are often measured in decades.

What we do know is that many students attending these low-performing schools will be at a major disadvantage for the rest of their lives. Studies show students in classrooms with top-performing teachers are more likely to go to college, earn higher salaries, and live in better neighborhoods as adults. It is hard to underestimate the importance of education in the modern economy. Education can radically change the trajectory of a student's life: Ninety percent of students born into poverty who graduate from college will never return to poverty.

This raises the obvious question: if a quality education is critical for students, but the strategies for improving schools take years to implement, what do we do for kids in those poor-performing school districts right now? Thankfully, a forward-thinking state legislator has an answer: give them an opportunity to exit the district and build an educational experience that meets their needs.

State Representative Paul Lundeen (R-Monument) has sponsored HB-1089, which creates an innovative program that will provide immediate options for students in the state's lowest-performing districts. The bill would give parents in these districts control over the education funding allocated to their child, which averages over $7,000 per student per year. Parents would be able to use this money to purchase education services like tutors, rigorous coursework, non-religious private school tuition, or even to attend a public school in a different district. If students choose to attend a better school in a different district, the money allocated for that student will follow them to the public school of their choice. This is not a voucher program - this is a lifeline for kids in failing schools that will open many different paths for a great education.

To prevent fraud or abuse, the program includes safeguards to ensure the money is only spent on educational expenses. It also requires that the students' home district measure students' academic performance so that parents and taxpayers know whether the program is working.

The program would only be implemented in districts with a "priority improvement" or "turnaround" state performance rating for five consecutive years. Allow me to translate that "edu-speak" into English: these are districts that perpetually fail to meet the very lowest bar of quality for half a decade. By any reasonable measure, these school districts are not adequately serving students or providing acceptable results for our tax dollars.

Not only does this proposal provide a solution for kids in the system today, it also creates a space for innovation. Parents would have the ability to customize an educational experience tailored to meet the needs of their individual child. And the cherry on top? This program would not require any additional tax revenue.

Unfortunately, this idea faces a difficult path to becoming reality. That's because the usual status-quo apologists are already out in force to kill this groundbreaking idea before it has a chance to take hold. Special interest groups, particularly those representing adults instead of kids, will claim that this proposal degrades local control, but there is no more local control than parental control.

The bill was scheduled to be heard in the House Education Committee on Monday, so we'll have the opportunity to see whether legislators are willing to buck the status quo and give Colorado's neediest kids a chance to succeed right now.

Let's hope the special interests and supporters of the failed status quo don't stand in the way.

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Luke Ragland is President of Ready Colorado, the state's leading conservative education advocacy group.

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