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Bipartisan education reform bill introduced

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By Rob Witwer

As I wrote several weeks ago, I’ve been working with Gov. Bill Ritter and a bipartisan group of legislators to craft a rigorous education reform bill to prepare Colorado’s educational system for the challenges of a new global economy. That bill, called the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (or CAP4K), was formally introduced last week.

The goal of CAP4K is to raise academic standards, provide every Colorado student with the equivalent of a college preparatory education, and ensure that high school graduates have the skills and knowledge they need to succeed either in the workforce or higher education.

To me, this is one of the most — if not the most — significant policy issues we face as a state. We can no longer afford to ignore the sense of urgency created by the emerging realities of the 21st-century economy.

Nations like China and India are experiencing rapid growth, fueled in part by their commitment to technical education. By the year 2010, an estimated 90 percent of the world’s engineers will live in Asia. These engineers will compete directly with Americans for technical jobs. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has estimated that by the year 2025, there will be more Chinese English speakers than native English speakers in the rest of the world. All of this is a function of one thing: education.

So where does Colorado fit into this brave new world? While Colorado has the nation’s third highest percentage of adults with at least a baccalaureate degree, only about 20 percent of our ninth-grade students will eventually graduate from college. Moreover, 30 percent of Colorado high school students who immediately enroll in a public college require remedial coursework in at least one subject.

Clearly, the status quo is not good enough. We need to ensure that the next generation of Coloradans has the tools to be competitive in this new economic environment. It’s time to raise the bar, and to do that we need to reform our entire K-12 system.

Unfortunately, education debates tend to be extremely contentious. Past reform efforts have often divided along party lines. Teachers’ unions, school choice advocates, parents and political leaders have strong opinions about education, and these are frequently at odds. If past experience teaches anything, it is this: No real change can be accomplished without something approaching consensus — 51 percent is just not enough to achieve meaningful reform.

For these reasons, the governor and legislative leadership have worked hard to ensure that CAP4K enjoys widespread bipartisan support. The bill will be carried in the Senate by Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, and in the House by Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Summit County, and myself.

At a minimum, CAP4K will revise and update substantive learning benchmarks (known as content standards), develop a set of assessments to measure achievement against the content standards (which we hope will ultimately improve upon and replace CSAP), and establish guidelines for a state-endorsed diploma for students who achieve a high level of proficiency with respect to the content standards.

In my next column two weeks from now, I’ll discuss more details of CAP4K, along with updated news about the bill’s progress as it moves through the legislature. In the meantime, I’m encouraged with the initial support shown not only on both sides of the political aisle, but across the various stakeholder groups who will have input on the bill.

We’re off to a good start.

Rob Witwer is the state representative for House District 25, which encompasses the Evergreen area and most of western Jefferson County.