Crossroads for Colorado Education
State confronts need for better schooling of a work force that is increasingly divided by skill. REGIONAL DEVELOPMENT
DENVER — `WELCIM, Governor Romer!'' Colorado Gov. Roy Romer was taken aback by the sign at a Denver elementary school. ``I took the principal aside and asked about the spelling,'' Governor Romer recalls.
```Oh, we don't want to inhibit the children as they're just learning to read and write,' she explained. `Your visit is important to them. We don't want it spoiled by red marks all over their poster.'''
Democrat Romer told the story at a conference on Jobs for Colorado's Future last month. He agreed with the principal. But Hank Brown, Republican nominee for the Senate, took him to task. ``That's not the way I'd teach the three Rs,'' he said.
Coloradans have been debating education a good deal lately, due in part to Jobs for Colorado's Future. The program is an offshoot of a Boston-based national organization: Jobs for the Future (JFF). For two years, JFF has conducted studies of educational and training needs in Missouri, Mississippi, Indiana, Arkansas, and Colorado.
``We are at a crossroads when it comes to education,'' says Marion Paul, director of Jobs for Colorado's Future. She finds troublesome gaps in the state's changing economy:
Colorado is developing a divided regional economy. There is growth in high-tech manufacturing, telecommunications, and business services from Fort Collins through Denver to Pueblo - cities of the Front Range (eastern Colorado). But many rural communities are in decline.
There is a growing disparity in jobs. Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, flourishes with high-tech occupations. The university is becoming a major center for research in aerospace, telecommunications, and cable television technology. But statewide, most new jobs are in low-paying retail and service-sector industries. There's a shortfall of middle-income jobs, especially in the ski-resort communities.
Above all, there are gaps in the state's education system. Colorado has long prided itself on its highly educated work force; 23 percent of adults have college degrees, the highest percentage of any state. In some communities, such as Fort Collins, 33 percent of the work force is college-educated.
But the work force is weak at the lower end of the scale. The state ranks 39th in adult literacy and 44th in expenditures for students with disabilities. Only 2 percent of Colorado's 455,000 functional illiterates are enrolled in any sort of reading program.
Harold Hodgkinson, a Washington, D.C., demographer, has some explanations for these disparities. Mr. Hodgkinson appeared in Denver last month to present a new study of education in Colorado.
``Let's start with the college graduates,'' he said. ``One of four adults with a college education is phenomenal. But half those college grads earned their degrees in some other state.''
Mr. Hodgkinson brought a sackful of statistics on Colorado's investment in education - most of them unflattering. Colorado ranks 25th among the states in high school graduation rate. The record for Hispanic and black students is even worse. The state is 21st in school expenditures in relation to per capita income.
Hodgkinson says this underfunding of education stems from transiency in the West. Only one-third of Colorado residents were born in the state. In Minnesota, where he grew up, two-thirds of the citizens are natives. Minnesota has a 20 percent better high school graduation rate.
In an ```every man for himself state' there is less concern for the education of other people's children,'' he concluded.
United States Department of Labor official John Florez echos many of Hodgkinson's conclusions. Mr. Florez is a Mexican-American social worker who grew up in Utah. He was born near the railroad yards of Salt Lake City and went on to teach at the University of Utah. Today he oversees federal Job Training Partnership Act programs for employment.
``Many of Colorado's problems in education are national concerns,'' says Florez. ``We really are in danger of becoming a two-tiered society - a nation of those who have the skills to compete in a new global economy, and those who have not.
``Many of these problems are just coming to the surface in Colorado. You [Coloradans] have been able to attract educated people for years because of the beauty of the place. Two of my own kids are here.
``But you've been lulled into complacency. The education of your work force is not of your own doing. And you have a 50 percent dropout rate for minorities. That's intolerable.''
State demographer Reid Reynolds says the ``brain rush'' days are over. Immigration to the state plummeted with the energy industry, from 41,000 in 1983 to 7,000 in 1984. The state began to lose residents in 1986.
Cathy Sunshine, a Denver management consultant, ran a career services program for geologists during those years. She kept close track of population data during the worst of the crash. ``Denver lost 20,000 jobs from the oil and gas industry in 1986 alone,'' she says. ``And 16,000 were managerial positions. That's when the Brain Drain began.''
It's likely that Colorado will lose its leadership in college graduates with the 1990 census. But some analysts say there's a more serious need at the lower echelons of the labor force, in technical skills.
John Beach is president of Technology Products Inc. of Longmont, a small city in Boulder County where high-tech manufacturing companies cluster near the University of Colorado. His company is one of a half-dozen firms that manufacture plastic components for high-tech medical equipment.
``Most of the manufacturers here find a shortfall in basic education,'' he observes. ``Reading and writing; simple fractions. But when it comes to skills for modern industry, we're really in trouble. We do all our own training in plastics technology. We have to hire toolmakers out of state.''
Manufacturers are looking to the state board of community colleges for improved technical training. The schools have expanded their customized training program for industry, established a network of small business development centers across the state, and joined the National Civic League in an effort to promote rural economic development.
The vocational schools received a national award for their new education-business partnerships late last month. That may be the ground-level approach Colorado needs: not more college grads, but a reliable foundation of literacy and technical skills.