Colorado Business & Civic Leaders Visit DC for a Tour-de-Education

Colorado Succeeds led a delegation of twenty-five chamber and industry association leaders – representing every county of Colorado to Washington D.C., in late September to meet with elected officials, diplomats, and national experts on key education issues and opportunities during an intense three-day trip.

“Education is the single most important issue we should all be focusing on and it isn’t getting the attention is needs or deserves,” said Sen. Michael Bennet during a meeting with our delegation at the U.S. Capitol. “We need business and civic leaders to reinsert education into the conversation.”

Perhaps Sen. Gardner summed up the three-day visit best. “Education is the key to everything. If it’s ending war, education is the key. If it’s growing the economy, education is the key.”

The trip was part of increasing the impact of Colorado Succeeds BizCARES network, a statewide group of chambers of commerce, economic development organizations, business roundtables, and industry associations representing every county in the state. Members were brought up to speed on:

  1. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and its potential impact on Colorado’s academic standards, assessments, and accountability system, and,
  2. Innovative efforts to promote workforce development, apprenticeships, and enhance school choice, among other matters.

The delegation gathered on the first night to hear from Col. (Ret.) Dave Osborne from Mission:Readiness and Mike Petrilli, President & CEO of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a national education policy and research group. Col. Osborne immediately engaged the delegation with this startling national security warning: “70 percent of the current high school student population can’t qualify for the military in Colorado.” He shared his concern that too few students are prepared academically and physically and too many hold criminal records. Mission:Readiness believes advancing education achievement for all students is the only way we can continue to thrive as a nation.

Petrilli echoed this sentiment and explained how income, race, and origin should not get in the way of providing a quality education for all students in this country. As Petrilli noted, poverty is an important factor in education that cannot be overlooked. However, at the same time, there are great examples of schools across Colorado and the nation that are successfully serving all students – including those living in poverty. “Colorado would be wise to focus on these success stories, figure out their secret sauce, and share it with schools across the state,” said Petrilli.

Swiss Embassy and Apprenticeships

One highlight of the trip was a breakfast and discussion at the Swiss Embassy, hosted by Ambassador Martin Dahinden, where our delegates learned from American businesses and community colleges who are partnering on apprenticeship work. Industry leaders from North Carolina shared their experience in expanding a Swiss-like apprenticeship system that has successfully created pathways for students and provided local businesses with highly-skilled workers.

“The apprenticeship model provides important opportunities for young people that will help them grow and succeed in life,” said Dr. Simon Marti from the Swiss Embassy’s Office of Science, Technology, and Higher Education.

Dustin Harmon, a third year apprentice at Daetwyler in North Carolina, shared his thoughts on being an apprentice with the group. “I have the opportunity to earn while I learn and apply the theory I am learning in the classroom in a real-world work environment,” said Harmon. “I’ve definitely matured faster than my peers who went to college. The work environment forces that kind of personal responsibility and focus.”

Meetings with Senators and National Experts

After the Swiss Embassy, the delegation headed to the U.S. Capitol to meet with both Colorado’s U.S. Senators, Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, to learn more about their priorities for the state’s education system. Both senators praised Colorado’s business community for their engagement in education and encouraged the delegates to remain at the table and actively involved in the conversation.

“There is nothing easy about improving education in our society,” said Sen. Bennet. “People want keep doing things the way they always have because it’s easier. I urge you, as business leaders, not to let them do so.”

Our partner, Jeff Wasden, of the Colorado Business Roundtable echoed Sen. Bennet and Sen. Gardner’s sentiments during our meeting at the Capitol. “States with the best schools will win,” said Wasden. “Business needs to be an active and engaged partner in education to help Colorado to continue to thrive.” (Special thanks to Jeff and the Colorado BRT for sponsoring the delegation’s meeting with our senators.)

The final portion of our jam-packed day was a robust ‘national partners discussion’ with thought leaders from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and powerful education advocacy groups including the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Education Trust.

The conversation centered on how a strong foundation of academic standards, accountability, and school choice creates the opportunity for schools to innovate and deliver an educational experience that’s relevant in the modern economy. The delegation learned how issues like school choice, equity, standards, and workforce development intersect with one another.

“The business community can advocate for kids and school quality in a way others don’t and can’t. They have been a key piece of the puzzle in any place that has made significant improvements to their education system,” said Nina Rees, President and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

With student data privacy a hot button issue in Colorado, the group’s meeting with Paige Kowlaski of the Data Quality Campaign was very timely. Our discussion with Kowlaski focused on the importance of using data in decision-making and systems improvement. The goal of this session was to address growing concerns about student data privacy in the context of the need for meaningful data to drive school improvement and ensure that every child is receiving the quality education they deserve.

Final Stop: The White House

Our trip concluded at the White House for a meeting with representatives from the White House Business Council and the President’s Education Policy Advisors. The representatives shared their work and priorities for advancing ESSA and workforce development and shed light on opportunities for the business community to increase partnerships.

“We’re focusing on making school more relevant for youth and driving personalization through technology. ESSA implementation provides a great opportunity to achieve these outcomes and it will require local leaders to bring an entrepreneurial spirit to system design,” said Mario Cardona, Senior Policy Advisor for Education at the White House.

It was a packed 48 hours, and participants came away feeling better informed and energized about some of the initiatives underway or in the planning stages. With Colorado currently working on its state plan for ESSA implementation and kicking off several workforce development initiatives, including a new credentialing program, having an engaged and informed business community is critical.

Scott summarized the theme of the trip well when he said education plus leadership equals the solution to all of society’s greatest challenges. As business leaders, we have the opportunity, obligation, and capacity to be part of this effort and we are honored to work with anyone who is ready to engage.

photo of
Ashley Andersen