Ritter’s Education Message Left Wanting

In yesterday’s State of the State address, newly-minted Governor Bill Ritter’s remarks came with little suspense and offered no surprises. But supporters of freedom and parental choice may demand answers yet. Congratulations are to be given for the positive tone and the ambitious goals, such as cutting the dropout rate in half. But the general outline for how to get Colorado there is where some problems are going to arise.

First, what did he say? “We’re going to align our educational programs with today’s competitive global marketplace. We’re going to prepare our students for 21st century industries – 21st century opportunities – like renewable energy, aerospace and biomedicine.” Sounds like the preface to this new national report, which Speaker Romanoff has already said he will convene a task force to implement.

The question remains as to how this alignment is supposed to take place, for the issue of local school board control still remains. If 21st century skills are what our kids need – and I tend to believe that it is a lot of what they do need – why do you suppose the current system has done so little to effect change? A state fiat or mandate is not going to bring this about. Leave it to the power of the consumer and the marketplace to make the education system deliver its best quality at its greatest efficiency.

Ritter also said: “Colorado has made great progress in the area of accountability. But now we need to strengthen and streamline our different accountability programs. We need one system that provides meaningful data in a timely fashion so we can improve student learning. I look forward to working with the state Board of Education on this issue.” All in all, this is a good and commonsense idea. Let’s use a single consistent standard to rate the performance of our students, teachers, and schools. But let’s also make the performance ratings be measurements of things that matter, and let’s give them fair and reasonable consequences, too.

He continued: “Our overall education efforts must start at the pre-school level and continue through college. Coloradans want to see more slots opened up for pre-school programs. And so do I. I look forward to working with Speaker Romanoff to decide exactly how we do that.” A targeted, voluntary preschool program for kids who start their schooling with the greatest disadvantages makes sense. And it also makes sense to let the market serve these families’ needs, empowering them with vouchers that will ensure better service. A one-size-fits-all, universal, state-mandated program would be little more than a union boondoggle. The long term value of preschool is highly overrated by its proponents – let the research be your guide here.

Moving on: “I want our colleges and universities to double the production of technical certificates and college degrees over the next 10 years. To do that, we need our higher ed systems pulling in the same direction, not competing against each other.” This is a dubious analysis. I would much rather our colleges and universities were competing to excel and to attract the best students. Again, how do you plan to get all postsecondary institutions to follow along in lockstep?

Most importantly from the education portion of Ritter’s address is what was left unsaid. The state’s relatively progressive advances in the area of public school choice – open enrollment, charter schools, online schools, contract schools, etc. – nary even an allusion was made to them. The national report that seems to have guided some of his remarks also called for greater parental choice, more equitable student funding, and teacher pay reform. No bold initiatives in any of these areas.

Instead, he said: “We’re going to realize these opportunities by partnering with teachers, school boards, parents and students. We’re going to listen to our teachers. We’re going to give them the tools they need to succeed. We’re going to put their good ideas to work creating rigorous and relevant study programs.” That’s all well and good as far as it goes (though it would be nice to hear a plug for educational programs being rooted in solid research, too). Unless, of course, he was using code words for his team of partners being the union (CEA), school board association (CASB), and PTA. That iron triangle of educational lobbying power has been brought dragging along with what reforms have been passed in this state and has wielded its clout to obstruct others.

So color me skeptical of how serious Governor Ritter is about reaching his ambitious educational goals. He passed up the opportunity to promote many promising and innovative ideas, so I’m not expecting too much from his administration. In this case, less truly will be more.

Cross posted at Political Avalanche

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