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As more students fall behind, a consensus is emerging on how to help them catch up

This article was written by Papa Dia, founder and executive director of the African Leadership Group, State Senator Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, and State Senator Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican.

For a generation of educators and policymakers here in Colorado, the wide gap in educational outcomes and enrichment opportunities between the rich and poor, suburban and rural communities, urban and gentrified neighborhoods have been a cause of great frustration and grave worry. It is unacceptable, yet it remains.

Our kids are falling behind, especially low-income students, and COVID made it worse. The time to act is now. This November we have an opportunity to close the gap for Colorado kids.

The problem is clear: Colorado schoolchildren have fallen behind in reading, math, science and writing – particularly students of color or those from low-income families. On the most recent national tests, only about 40 percent of Colorado’s 4th graders were proficient in reading, with only 22 percent of low-income students scoring proficient or higher.

We aren’t just picking on fourth graders; when you look at Colorado students in grades three through eight, more than half fail to meet grade-level expectations in reading, writing, or math on state tests. The one constant? Glaring disparities based on income, race, and geography; we have to end this, those factors cannot be allowed to dictate success any longer.

In an era when Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on much anything, we believe that attacking the root causes of this gap is something that we can and must do together. On the heels of COVID and school closures,  closing the gap has taken on a special kind of urgency. Now is the time to take the first step, because the future of so many young people is on the line. 

That’s why we have signed on as early supporters of a proposed ballot initiative that would provide funding for families to choose from a menu of approved out-of-school learning providers, including tutoring in reading, math, science, and writing, extra services for special needs students, and career and technical education-training programs.

This fall, Coloradans can do something about it, they can close the achievement and enrichment gap by supporting a ballot initiative that will work alongside K-12. The Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress (LEAP) Program would be funded by a 5 percent sales tax increase on recreational marijuana and revenue from agricultural, mineral, and renewable energy development on state land.

This measure has been carefully crafted by experts from across the state to address the most pressing needs our students face. If passed, it will provide equity and flexibility for Colorado’s K-12 students so they can sharpen their skills and add new ones.

The $1,500 in annual funding for out-of-school instruction is a game-changer. That funding could be used for a variety of opportunities, including tutoring for reading, math, and science, as well as support for students with special needs and enrichment activities.

All Colorado students would be eligible, and the most under-resourced students would be prioritized.

As students, teachers, and families grapple with online learning, hybrid models and the slow return to in-person instruction because of the pandemic, the need to provide our students with tutoring, supplemental instruction, and enrichment programming intensifies.

The measure has earned early support from dozens community leaders from across Colorado as well as heavyweights from education and policy circles, including Senator James Coleman (D-Denver), Senator Paul Lundeen (R-Monument), former Senator and State Treasurer Mark Hillman, CEO of Gary Community Investments and former Senator Mike Johnston, Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education and Thorne Nature Experience.

In the end, this issue transcends nearly every political, geographic, economic, and racial group, and should be able to find broad support at the polls.

The LEAP Program won’t just benefit students, though that is without question the primary goal. It will also benefit our teachers – who can receive additional compensation providing supplemental services during non-school hours; our students will be, in greater numbers, ready to learn or able to seek help when needed; our employers will find a better-educated pool of prospective employers.

If this measure passes, there will be more work to do. But we must recognize this moment and seize the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our kids; they are the future. So, let’s get to work with fresh resolve and common purpose.

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