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Guest column

During the Public Education & Business Coalition’s 25th Anniversary luncheon last April, Joe Blake, president of the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, succinctly summarized the key lessons business can offer public education.

"Business each and every day deals with hope, alignment and competition, but it does it with a sense of urgency," he said. "Urgency will bring even greater results in the years ahead."

This country has been in "urgent" school reform mode since the groundbreaking "A Nation at Risk" study was published 25 years ago. The study warned that our nation’s public education system was being eroded by a "rising tide of mediocrity" and suggested drastic remedies.

Unfortunately, we have not made a great deal of progress in the intervening years. Student achievement is largely stagnant, and other countries are outpacing us in preparing their young people to be productive members of the 21st century work force. As a small business owner, a lifelong member of this community, and most importantly as the mother of twins in our elementary public school system, this inertia concerns me greatly.

Recent events in Colorado give us reason for hope. If the state’s business community plays an active role in urgently advocating for those efforts that produce alignment and competition, Colorado can lead the way in effective school reform.

The governor recently signed two pieces of key legislation. One, the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K), was designed to produce alignment of curriculum and standards from preschool through post-graduate work. The other, the Innovation Schools Act, frees public schools from the shackles of over-regulation and onerous union contracts, prompting healthy competition.

CAP4K is based on three basic philosophical assumptions: 1) Education needs to be aligned from preschool into college; 2) students need the same skills for college as they do for specialized training or going to work; and 3) student mastery of skills is more important than having certain classes listed on a transcript.

If and when the plan is fully implemented, there will be state content standards in every grade on a wide variety of subjects and skills, new forms of testing, state definitions of what it means both to be ready for school and ready for postsecondary education or work, specialized high school diplomas, updated graduation requirements in every school district and an easier path into state colleges for some high school graduates.

Seeing that the law’s many tasks are carried out now falls to two public bodies — the state Board of Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education. Business leaders must play a watchdog role to ensure the spirit of the law is honored in details to be hammered out in the coming years.

The Innovation Schools Act encourages schools or groups of schools to seek freedom from school district and teacher contract red tape. It further urges school districts that have granted freedom to schools to then apply to the state for exemption from some of the more onerous state rules and regulations. Non-negotiables, however, include Colorado Student Assessment Program testing, special education and data collection for School Accountability Reports.

These moves toward freedom give schools and districts room to innovate and improve in ways that have not been possible under the current hidebound, bureaucratic system. Clearly, this new law deserves the support of businesspeople, who have long understood that schools would benefit from an entrepreneurial spirit.

Alignment and competition offer reason for hope. But these potentially groundbreaking initiatives could get bogged down in the usual special interest horse-trading, or entangled in new bureaucratic requirements that would strangle progress.

At that same PEBC luncheon, former University of Denver Chancellor Dan Ritchie said that, for the first time in his memory, the stars are aligned to push through meaningful education reform. He is right. As business leaders, it is our obligation to make sure this great hope is realized.

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Leanna Clark

Leanna Clark is Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications for The IMA Financial Group and also oversees the company's philanthropic arm, the IMA Foundation, which actively gives to nonprofit interests in the communities in which the company operates.

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