A good education leads to a good job

Will Colorado make the grade?
The Colorado Statesman

A who’s who of education leaders spanning the political, advocacy and business worlds in Colorado lined up on Monday for a discussion of education and how it relates to jobs and the economy.

NBC News helped shine a spotlight on the state’s need for education reform thanks to a live broadcast of the “Education Nation: Job One” panel discussion moderated by the network’s Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell. Joining the discussion at the History Colorado Center was Linda Alvarado, president and chief executive of Denver-based Alvarado Construction Inc., Bruce Benson, president of the University of Colorado, Richard Monfort, owner of the Colorado Rockies and chairman of the Colorado Economic Development Commission, and Kent Thiry, chief executive of Denver-based DaVita Inc.

Kicking off the discussion was Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has made education reform a priority of his administration. Hickenlooper gave rare testimony on proposed legislation back in March in support of House Bill 1239, which aims to improve literacy in early elementary school grades. The governor is also supportive of a controversial proposal to provide reduced tuition rates to undocumented students. Both those bills are making their way through the Legislature.

“People everywhere in the world want a real job; they want to be paid above the table, they want 30 hours a week, they want some benefits and they want a job that can really lead to a better job…” Hickenlooper said, emerging from behind a curtain to take the stage built for the program in the auditorium of the History Colorado Center. “A good job, without question, begins with a good education.”

Financing education

Much of the panel discussion was focused on what the business community can do to finance improved education in Colorado. Many agree that education reform is necessary to promote the state’s business climate, both in terms of attracting businesses to Colorado and advancing the state’s industries. But advocates still have trouble getting the financial support that is needed.

DaVita’s Thiry said one reason why it is difficult to get business leaders to financially support education reform efforts is because it is impossible to promise results or transparency.

“So often those conversations fall down not so much on the unwillingness of the company to do so, but the fear that there’s not going to be the results that are promised …” opined Thiry. “In business, if we write a $10 million check and give it to a team of people, if they’re not achieving certain milestones, then we get to cut off the funding and to replace the management… Giving $10 million to someone where you feel there’s not going to be that accountability, there’s not going to be that type of transparency of results, that team management — that doesn’t feel so sensible.”

Monfort said it’s unrealistic to expect business to fund education in Colorado, especially higher education. “It’s really truly the state’s responsibility to fund a good portion of higher-ed if they want those kids to get into school,” he said.

“If it’s businesses’ responsibility, then fine, just get the state out of the way and let the business people meet with Bruce Benson… and all those other people and say, ‘OK, this is what we need,’” continued Monfort. “But right now that can’t even happen because Bruce has got to go up in front of the CCHE [Colorado Commission on Higher Education] who is going to say, ‘No, we don’t want you to have this program…’ even though a business like Ken’s over here will say, ‘We need this.’”

Colorado voters and the business community appear to agree that a lack of accountability and the inability to promise results can make for an illogical investment into education. Voters last year rejected a temporary five-year tax increase to fund education across the state. Many of the concerns raised with the ballot proposal were over where the money would actually end up. Some feared that it would end up being used for budget expenses, such as Medicaid.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, the father of the ballot initiative, said candidly that education advocates need to do a better job of communicating their message to the public if they are to get taxpayers to pay for additional educational resources.

“We’ve got to do a better job of communicating with the citizens of this state and making them understand that if we don’t provide the fiscal support then it’s going to be pretty difficult for our wonderful schools and teachers,” Heath said from the audience at the “Education Nation” production.

Committing to students; undocumented immigrants

Benson said part of the problem is that there is a lack of commitment to students who are in need of remediation in the state’s higher education systems. Universities should work with struggling students rather than dump them into lower college systems, he stressed.

“I personally have always had a philosophy that if you take a student, you should be responsible for that student,” Benson said. “In this state, we send them back to community colleges — I know that’s not popular for me to comment that way to community colleges. But I do think we have a responsibility to take care of these students.”

“I’m a businessman,” he continued. “My attitude is whatever cards you’re dealt, you make it work.”

Benson said a commitment to students is going to become even more relevant as the state’s minority Hispanic population becomes the majority sometime in the next 30 years. “We’ve got to figure out how to get everybody an opportunity for education in this country,” he said.

Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, the sponsor of Senate Bill 15, which would provide reduced tuition rates to undocumented students, said the best way to go about addressing the state’s growing minority population in terms of education is to actually give them a shot at higher education.

“We have an increasingly growing population in this state of Latino students… and of those some significant number are undocumented, and those students also have the ability and have done the back work to get into college, but unless they have financing to be able to pay their way through college — currently they don’t because they pay out-of-state tuition rates — that means we have more and more of an achievement gap that is growing,” Johnston said, rising from the audience to make his point.

In addition to an achievement gap in Colorado, the state also faces something known as the “Colorado paradox,” panel members attested. The paradox comes because only 33 percent of native Coloradans have an associate degree, while all the rest of the associate degrees in the state are held by transplants. Monfort joked, “The main reason for the paradox is because of CU and all these students that they bring in from out of state.”

But he said one way to address the paradox is to change the notion that higher education is only for the rich. “It gets back to access,” he said. “A lot of kids grow up thinking that college is only for the rich.”

“We need to be getting kids, first of all, to know that they’ve got to do good in high school,” Monfort continued. “But getting a high school degree is not the end all. You’ve got to be smart, you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to read… you’ve got to do all these things so that you can get into college. If you get the grades and you have the skills, you can get into college.”

Finding solutions

Alvarado said the solution must come from all sides of the debate, acknowledging that the business community plays a major role. “We have to raise our hands as businesses and get involved,” she said.

“It’s not about where we came from; what we look like; what our parents did or didn’t do,” Alvarado continued. “It’s not if you’re in the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, the tea party, or the tequila party — we have to come together.”

Kelly Brough, president and chief executive of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the business community is dedicated to finding solutions, arguing that business leaders understand the importance of an educated workforce.

“We know that this is a critical moment in their life, and as a business community, we’re really focused on not blaming anymore…” said Brough. “The business community is more motivated than we’ve ever been in our history.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com