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Romanoff Task Force Should Hear from Wide Range of Voices

By Benjamin DeGrow

Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff has focused his sights on a long-term overhaul of the state’s public education system. Yet any serious conversation to transform K-12 education in Colorado should include more than the list of usual interest group suspects.

The Speaker’s inspiration is the new report Tough Choices or Tough Times, a product of the distinguished leaders and experts on the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. The report is a comprehensive blueprint to redesign public education to equip coming generations of Americans for the 21st Century’s rapidly changing economy.

Indeed, some of the proposals present the hope of positive change. The report calls for major modifications in subject standards, testing, teacher recruitment and compensation, and school funding and management. Yet such massive reforms certainly would encounter serious obstacles, not all of which should necessarily be moved.

Among those in Colorado with the most to lose would be the 178 school district boards. The current system is built around district control of locally-elected tax revenues, while the state constitution protects local control of curriculum. Tough Choices or Tough Times says all funding should be redirected through the state and that schools should be operated by various outside contractors—including teacher-run limited liability corporations.

Overlooked, however, were the findings of a 1997 Heartland Institute report by Dr. Caroline Hoxby, which showed a greater share of school funding from statewide revenue produces poorer academic results. Colorado has shifted more of the school funding burden to the state level in recent years, but following the commission’s prescription would be a far more drastic policy change with possible negative consequences.

These consequences could be overcome, or even reversed, through the competitive power of greater educational choice. “[P]arents and students could choose among all the available contract schools,” says the commission’s executive summary.

The call to change school management forms one of 10 interlocking proposals in the report. Significant among them is the honest and refreshing admission that the overhaul must be accomplished with current financial resources. “We can get where we must go only by fixing the system itself,” says the executive summary.

The commission says some savings will be found by establishing a State Board exam after the 10th grade, which will set students’ course either for an advanced academic curriculum, community college, or vocational training.

Further savings would come from realigning incentives to draw the brightest and best into the teaching profession. According to the commission, costly pensions for teachers should be replaced with something comparable to the best private sector retirement packages, freeing enough funds to offer the average teacher $45,000 in his first year. A statewide salary schedule would include incentives for performance or for choosing to teach in needy schools.

Besides the change in teacher pay, the commission also calls for states to use cost savings to provide high-quality, universal preschool, and to attach extra funding directly to students diagnosed with disabilities or special learning needs.

The report estimates $60 billion a year could be redirected to the three areas. Figured proportionally, Colorado’s annual share of the redistribution would be more than $900 million.

Romanoff wasted no time putting Colorado at the forefront of the reform conversation. The Denver Post reported that he wants to assemble “a task force of educators and parents” to create a plan for our state. The Speaker’s stated interest in such a bold project merits him some applause. Yet any discussions to transform Colorado’s school system should comprise a broad cross section of those interested in education.

Non-union teachers—more than a quarter of those in Colorado’s public schools—should be represented at the table. So should the most creative principals and leading educational entrepreneurs who have worked to offer kids and families new opportunities.

Moms and dads outside the PTA power structure, and other concerned taxpayers, should be welcomed aboard. The task force should take time to hear from struggling parents, many in poorer communities, who are dissatisfied with their children’s current educational opportunities.

Finally, the discussion should include CEOs, small business owners, and other private employers who hire the end products of the current school system. On the front lines of economic trends, they can offer invaluable input.

The task force created to debate the future shape of Colorado’s education system should not be confined to the narrow interest groups who typically dominate education policy conversations. A wider range of voices is needed to help shape how public schools can best serve this state’s citizens for the next generation.