A quality education is the most important gift we can give our children. It is the key to a prosperous future and a strong economy. And that's why guaranteeing an excellent education that gives every student a chance to succeed has been one of my priorities for as long as I've been in public service. I know that by working together, we can ensure our young people are leaving school prepared to secure good-paying jobs in the global economy, particularly growing fields like the burgeoning clean energy economy.
Early Childhood Education
Studies have shown that children who start school behind their peers on basic skills are more likely to lag behind throughout the rest of their education. It's critical that we work to ensure every student has the chance to succeed by giving them the tools they need to enter school ready to learn. That is why I support high-quality, comprehensive early-childhood programs like Head Start, which has a proven record of helping with cognitive development, socialization, and long-term performance.
Another important aspect of our educational system is teaching our nation's students the importance of wellness and physical activity in their everyday lives. I'm proud that Colorado has one of the lowest childhood obesity rates in the country. But there is still work to be done to help promote a healthy lifestyle. A comprehensive education should include various types of physical and wellness education courses in our K-12 schools. And teaching children about the fun and benefits of being active is even important for our pre-K kids, which is why I introduced a bill – the Healthy Kids from Day One Act – which would make technical assistance available to child care centers in order to help them boost the wellness of our youngest kids by serving nutritious foods and encouraging constructive and active play.
Elementary and Secondary Education
Children need a safe learning environment, smaller class sizes, and the necessary tools for learning, such as up-to-date books and state-of-the-art technology in order to thrive and grow into the next generation of global leaders. They also need the highest-quality teachers - but too often, a teacher's pay doesn't match the important job he or she does. And as a result, school districts are increasingly finding it difficult to recruit talented teachers. We must find a way to improve teachers' pay and provide professional development opportunities that help teachers and administrators continue to excel. In 2001, the bipartisan No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was enacted. While the intent of the law was to enhance student performance and increase accountability, lack of funding and flexibility for the states and local school districts have resulted in unfunded mandates and rigid federal rules. Last Congress, as part of this effort, I introduced legislation – the Growth to Excellence Act – which is based on the nationally recognized “growth model” developed in Colorado, and would measure students’ individual academic growth as a yardstick of school performance, as opposed to applying unattainable, one-size-fits-all standards that if not met, actually punish schools under NCLB. As the Senate continues its work on the necessary changes to NCLB, I will be a strong voice for Colorado's parents, students, teachers, and administrators throughout the process.
Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM)
The United States cannot remain the world leader in scientific discovery and innovation unless it continues to invest in educating Americans in science, technology, engineering, and math – more commonly referred to as STEM education. It is imperative that we give our children the best chance to succeed in an ever-changing global economy. Yet despite the growing importance of STEM fields, American students continue to perform poorly on international tests of science and math compared to other industrialized nations. We must improve investments now to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow - and that includes producing qualified teachers to guide them.
In talking to students and leaders at Colorado's institutions of higher learning - and as the father of two recent college graduates - I am acutely aware of the difficulties facing the higher education system in this country, including shrinking state budgets. We need to prepare our students so they can succeed once they are in college, and we need to ensure that every student who wishes to pursue a college education has the ability to do so.
More and more Colorado students are graduating from college with a mortgage-sized student loan. Finding ways to help young Americans finance their education needs to be a key piece in the effort to improve our higher education system. In the past, the federal government issued student loans through the U.S. Department of Education and subsidized other private student loans issued by banks. Taxpayers then protected the banks, which issued those private loans, in the event that borrowers defaulted on their loans. It was a win-win for the banks, but the concept of the federal government both subsidizing lenders and then simultaneously protecting them against default was widely viewed as a waste of taxpayer money.
In March 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law reforms that eliminated these lender subsidies and redirected the savings to community college investments and additional Pell Grants to students. Additionally, in May of 2012 I fought to keep interest rates on federally subsidized student loans from doubling, which would have cost the average student as much as $1,000 more to attend college. These critical investments will make education more affordable for Colorado students, and they will help ensure they are prepared for good-paying jobs in the global marketplace.
Coloradans, like families across the country, are struggling to make ends meet as our economy continues to recover. Community colleges are seeing enrollment surges as many workers are returning to school to learn new skills and bolster existing ones. An important way we will rebuild our economy is through investments in community colleges and technical institutions so that people of all ages can find and retain jobs. It is especially important that our students have access to programs where they can study science, mathematics, engineering, computer programming and learn other important skills. In the months and years ahead, it will be one of my priorities in the U.S. Senate to ensure the federal government fulfills its responsibility to be a good partner with state and local governments as we work to prepare students to enter the workplace and compete in the global economy.
Encouraging kids to get active and make healthy eating choices should be priorities as we combat the growing child obesity problem, which is why I have backed legislation, such as the Healthy Kids from Day One Act, to promote physical activity and healthy eating. I led a bipartisan effort to prevent the U.S. Department of Agriculture from imposing overly rigid restrictions on the vegetables that schools can serve at meals. School lunch providers in Colorado told me that this restriction will result in significant challenges for food service operations through higher costs, reduced flexibility and fewer students participating in school meal programs. The law, signed on Nov. 18, 2011, now allows schools working within already tight budgets the flexibility to provide nutritious meals – including starchy vegetables like peas, corn and potatoes that are cooked in a healthy way – and teaching kids healthy eating choices.
I was proud to help a group of 21 rural Colorado school districts win its appeal to keep federal government funding to provide students with broadband Internet services. I organized a bipartisan, delegation-wide letter to urge the Federal Communications Commission to resolve an outstanding appeal by the Colorado East Central Board of Cooperative Educational Services regarding E-Rate funding. These rural school districts rely on E-Rate funding to provide their students with important educational tools over the Internet, like upper-level distance-learning courses. I am thankful the FCC listened to our concerns and gave these school districts some peace of mind as they plan their budgets and curricula for the upcoming year.
Our sedentary lifestyles have led to many public health problems, such as epidemic levels of childhood obesity, and even national security concerns: nearly one in four applicants to the military is rejected for being overweight. This summer, I spearheaded a Kids to Parks initiative to engage the next generation of American youth in the outdoors. That's also why I introduced the Healthy Kids Outdoors Act (S.1802), along with my House colleague Rep. Ron Kind, to help Americans, especially kids, connect with healthy, active, outdoor lifestyles. Connecting with the outdoors is an excellent way to promote good physical and mental health and bolster America’s conservation legacy. It also supports our vibrant outdoor economy, which is especially important in Colorado and to our rural mountain communities.
In October 2011, I introduced a bill designed to improve a key shortcoming of the decade-old education reform law, No Child Left Behind. No Child Left Behind radically changed the way schools are held accountable for student achievement by setting goals and standards for performance. But it has been widely criticized for applying one-size-fits-all consequences to schools that face unique and often challenging circumstances, neglecting credit where credit is due for schools that have made enormous improvement yet remain underachieving compared to their peers. Every child is different and every school faces unique challenges; if a child enters school far behind - and then makes big improvements - we ought to factor that in when measuring their school's performance. My bill, which builds on work I did in the U.S. House, is based on a nationally recognized "growth model" developed in Colorado that does just that. It would allow states to consider a student's individual academic growth as a measurement of school performance, enabling schools to track students from year to year and providing schools, parents, teachers, and students alike with the information they need to see where improvements have been made and where there is still room for continued learning. It was drafted with the help of education experts from inside and out of government in order to be a part of the discussion as Congress begins its scheduled re-write of No Child Left Behind.
As chairman of the Senate’s Subcommittee on National Parks and co-chairman of the bipartisan Senate Outdoor Recreation Caucus, I am committed to engaging younger generations on the importance of the great outdoors. That's why, on May 19, 2011, I introduced and saw passed in the Senate a bipartisan resolution designating May 21, 2011, National Kids to Parks Day. The resolution marked the official launch of my comprehensive "Kids to Parks" summer campaign, which aims to get kids excited about being active and healthy outdoors, while inspiring the next generation of American stewards to enjoy and protect our nation’s special places. National Kids to Parks Day has partnered with the First Lady’s “Let’s Move Outside!” and the Department of the Interior’s “Youth in the Great Outdoors” initiatives. Click here to make the "Kids to Parks" pledge and join my campaign.