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Scholarship Tax Credits Could Help Denver, Aurora HS Students Overcome Challenges

For those who long have rolled up their sleeves to try to improve student learning, the cause of urban high school reform remains one of the most daunting tasks. Even in areas where the most concentrated and sustained efforts at reform have taken place, the promising results have been very limited. Enter a brand new report by A-Plus Denver, titled Denver and Aurora High Schools: Crisis and Opportunity.

Author Sari Levy gathered and analyzed student performance data from Colorado’s two large urban school districts, and the picture painted is not a very rosy one:

  • Based on ACT test scores, “about a third of students in [Denver Public Schools] and [Aurora Public Schools] would not qualify for basic military service”
  • On a day when Colorado college graduates are encouraged to show off their alma mater, it’s disheartening to see the rates of DPS and APS students needing college remediation are steady or rising
  • Denver’s level of success on Advanced Placement (AP) courses lags well below the national average
  • In a number of DPS schools, students in poverty have just above a zero chance of earning a 24 or higher on the ACT, which would place them at the average of their peers who will earn a 4-year college degree
  • Average ACT scores across Denver and Aurora remained flat from 2008 to 2012

The bright spot Levy points out is the expanding network of Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) charter high schools, an unsurprising result and a recurring theme. According to the report, DSST is alone among DPS schools with more than 15% of poor students earning at least a 24 on the ACT, and no poor students at or below the “basic literacy” score of 14.

In his letter introducing the report, A-Plus Denver executive director Van Schoales puts in perspective the recent history of Denver’s urban high school reform efforts:

As spring arrives in 2013, despite at least six commissions over the past decade, most recommendations have been ignored, dismissed, or implemented halfheartedly. In fairness to schools and district leaders, many of the recommendations were so vague that it is hard to know if they were implemented or not. CAP4K, which has had the most detail and political power behind it, has seen many of its timelines extended. Even the Gates Foundation, which saw more success in Colorado than in most other states, eventually withdrew from the task of tackling the high school problem.

The report recommends a host of ideas for positive changes in urban high schools. Many of them are worthy options. But I’d also like to request a new state-level policy that would help give greater hope for success to a number of students trapped in tough school environments. I’m talking about a scholarship tax credit program for Colorado.

Give students more choice by reducing tax bills for donations made to organizations like ACE Scholarships–donations that make a real difference in the lives of many students. Tax credits would make more K-12 scholarships available. If Colorado were to adopt such a program, as a dozen other states already have done, evidence strongly suggests it would have the added benefit of giving nearby public schools greater incentive to improve.

Talk about a win-win solution. K-12 scholarship tax credits wouldn’t provide the “magical silver bullet” solution to all the challenges outlined in the new A-Plus Denver report, but it gives every sign of shifting the needle significantly in the right direction. We certainly can’t wait another 10 years.