Polis: In Colorado, keep education local (column) | SummitDaily.com

Polis: In Colorado, keep education local (column)

Jared Polis
Special to the Daily

When it comes to education, those that live in the mountains know that the needs, challenges, and strengths that Grand County School District or Summit County School District has are much different than those faced by Denver Public Schools or Douglas County School District. And more broadly, schools in Colorado face a different set of circumstances than those in Alabama, or California, or South Dakota.

We all understand this basic principle. But in the eyes of our current federal education law, No Child Left Behind, these differences don't exist. That's because our current education law tells school districts how to measure progress instead of allowing states and districts themselves to create accountability measures that best serve their unique needs.

As a former chair of the Colorado State Board of Education and founder and former superintendent of a network of charter schools in Colorado and New Mexico, I saw the results of this failed reasoning first-hand. That's part of what inspired me to run for Congress — the opportunity to use my experience in schools to shape new education policy for our country.

And as I've traveled throughout the 2nd Congressional district as its Representative, I've heard these same concerns repeatedly. From East Grand Middle School in Granby to Stone Creek Charter School in Avon, to Summit High School in Breckenridge, what I heard was clear: There's too much redundant testing, too little respect and support for educators, and too many students falling through the cracks.

As recently as last month, at an education town hall I hosted in Frisco, local school leaders told me how the onerous and inflexible parameters of No Child Left Behind were hurting their ability to effectively teach kids.

Luckily, all of this is about to change. Just a few weeks ago, after years of fits and starts, we finally passed a sweeping education measure that overhauls our country's public education system and replaces No Child Left Behind with a bill that gives power back to states and local school districts.

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At the core of this new education law — which is called the Every Student Succeeds Act — is flexibility. We do away with No Child Left Behind's rigid, one-size-fits all parameters and instead lay out a broad framework of accountability and transparency requirements for states to meet, and then give them the power to set up their own systems that work best for their unique needs.

The new law will also enable students to spend less time taking tests and more time learning. For instance, Colorado high schoolers currently take PARCC, the ACT, and district assessments — and many students take AP or IB tests on top of that. Under the new law, states can now allow high-quality, recognized tests that are more meaningful to high school students — like the ACT — to serve in place of the annual state tests.

The new law also supports schools' efforts to expand creative and effective teaching methods beyond the traditional classroom setting. It grows and improves an existing program that provides resources for innovative solutions to common education challenges that have a proven record of supporting student achievement. These provisions (which are taken from legislation that I introduced in the House in February) will create new opportunities for STEM programs and education technology.

They're already having an effect in Colorado, where school districts like St. Vrain Valley have used this initiative to support students struggling with math and better engage kids in the sciences. By building on this program, our new education law will help more schools throughout the country take advantage of these opportunities.

The law also includes important updates to the federal Charter School Program, which provides grants to replicate and expand high-quality charter schools. I've been a strong supporter of high-performing charters since first coming to Congress based on my experience as a charter school founder.

While by no means perfect, our new education law is an important step in the right direction — it reduces testing, provides greater flexibility to make school accountability work, and maintains the original intent of our nation's education law — that it's a civil rights law, first and foremost, ensuring that every student, no matter their race or where they live or how much money their parents have, has access to a world-class education.

Education is the single most powerful tool for creating opportunity, and one of the best investments we can make in our country's future — we can't afford to leave any more students behind.

Jared Polis represents Colorado's 2nd congressional district.