Owens and Ritter: Creating a grant program for tutoring costs could help close the “opportunity gap”

When it comes to providing school-aged kids with the opportunities they need to succeed, the pandemic opened our eyes to problems that have existed for more than a generation.

Owens and Ritter: Creating a grant program for tutoring costs could help close the “opportunity gap”

When it comes to providing school-aged kids with the opportunities they need to succeed, the pandemic opened our eyes to problems that have existed for more than a generation.

In Colorado, a student’s success is too often connected directly to their race, family income, and where they grow up.

That is especially true for access to out-of-school learning options, where a growing “opportunity gap” helps fuel disparate academic outcomes — the “achievement gap” — based largely on socioeconomic factors.

And despite the noble efforts of parents and educators, the last 15 months have almost certainly widened those gaps.

Attacking this issue in a meaningful way should unite Coloradans regardless of their political leanings or where they live because the future of so many of our young people — who are our future employees, employers, and community leaders — is on the line.

That’s why we are pleased to lend our support to the growing, bipartisan efforts led by educators and community leaders from throughout Colorado to support Initiative 25, which would fund financial aid to support tutoring and many other forms of out-of-school instruction for the state’s neediest students.

The initiative, which will be on the statewide ballot this fall, would create the Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) program to provide aid for families to choose from a range of approved out-of-school learning providers; including tutors in reading, math, science, and writing, extra services for special needs students, and career and technical education training programs.

Priority for the financial aid would be given to low-income families, which could not be used for tuition, or in-school learning.

LEAP would be funded by increased sales tax on recreational marijuana and revenue from extractive, agricultural or renewable energy developments on state land. The goal is to fund a program to dramatically increase access to learning opportunities — particularly for students of color and those living in poverty.

We cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

Recent national tests showed us that just 40% of our fourth-graders were proficient readers, with about 20% of low-income students scoring proficient or higher. More than half of Colorado 3rd grade through 8th grade students fail to meet grade-level expectations in reading, writing, or math on state tests.

This is a problem that has vexed us for too long. In our gubernatorial terms, we grappled with Colorado being a national leader in the number of residents with college degrees, while not sending nearly enough of the kids who are born and raised here to college. We have made strides in improving that disparity, but much more is needed.

Consider the findings from a recent state report:

●     Roughly 56% of Colorado high school students go on to college — well below the statewide attainment goal of 66% by 2025;

●     62% of white students go to college, compared to 54% of Black students and 46% of Hispanic students;

●     and only 43% of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL) end up enrolling in college, compared to 63% of those who do not qualify.

As the report noted, there has been progress: Hispanic and Black students have seen small but steady increases in college enrollment rates since 2013. Students from low-income families have also seen growth. But if Colorado is going to meet its educational attainment goals, we must dramatically increase college-going rates for all high school graduate populations.

Why does it matter? Because attaining some sort of post-secondary degree is beneficial for our state’s economy and for our future workforce.

Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce predicted that in the modern economy, two-thirds of entry-level jobs will require training beyond high school. Approximately 56% of good jobs, defined as those paying at least $35,000 for workers between the ages of 25 and 44 and at least $44,000 for those aged 45 to 64, require a bachelor’s degree. Another 24% of good jobs require some other postsecondary credential.

The need to close the opportunity gap transcends politics, geography, socioeconomics and race, and is worthy of your support.

The LEAP program is our opportunity to make Colorado better. Join us in working together to help our kids leap to brighter futures.

Bill Owens, a Republican, served as Colorado governor from 1999 to 2007 and Bill Ritter Jr., a Democrat, served as governor from 2007-2011.

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