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Mark Udall looks at river bugs through a microscope with an Environmental Learning for Kids student. Environmental Learning for Kids uses nature to teach urban youth about science, math, leadership and careers. View more photos on Flickr

For many Coloradans, access to higher education is the key to achieving the American dream. Yet, escalating tuition costs and the mountains of debt owed well after graduation have threatened to erode access to higher education for an entire generation of Coloradans. Guaranteeing a world class education that gives every student a chance to succeed has been one of my top 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 in growing fields like the burgeoning clean energy sector.

Early Childhood Education

Studies have shown that children who are behind on basic skills when they start school are more likely to lag behind their peers 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.

Elementary and Secondary Education

Children need a safe learning environment, small class sizes and the basic 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 importance of the job that they do. 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 No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was enacted. While the intent of the law was to enhance student performance and increase accountability, a lack of funding and flexibility for the states and local school districts has resulted in unfunded mandates and rigid federal rules. To help fix this, I introduced legislation – the Growth to Excellence Act – which is based on the nationally recognized “growth model” developed in Colorado. My bill 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 continue to be a strong voice for Colorado's parents, students, teachers and administrators.

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. A well-rounded education will be the key to success in the 21st century economy, which is why improving STEM education will give our children the best chance to succeed in an ever-changing global jobs race. 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.

I have promoted STEM education as a founding co-chairman of the STEM Education Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, and now as a member of the Senate STEM Education Caucus.

Higher Education

From my conversations with students and school 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 our country’s higher education system, including shrinking state budgets. As part of our ongoing efforts to prepare our students to succeed, we must call on colleges and universities to reassess the skyrocketing cost of a college education so that no student is priced out of success. That’s why I welcomed President Obama’s commitment to focus on reducing the cost of a college education – our kids deserve no less.

Student Loans

More and more Colorado students are graduating from college with a mortgage-sized student loan to repay. Since my first days in Congress, I have fought to find ways to help young Americans finance their education. This needs to be a key part of the effort to improve our higher education system.

In March 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law reforms that eliminated subsidies paid to private lenders and redirected the savings to investments in community colleges and additional Pell Grants for students. 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. And in July 2013, I supported a Senate-led bipartisan deal to reverse a sharp spike in student loan rates and to ensure that student borrowers can take advantage of historically low rates today. But our work is certainly not done, and I intend to push for further reforms to the student loan program to make education more affordable for Colorado students and prepare them for good-paying jobs in the global marketplace.

  • Increasing Energy Efficiency in Our Schools

    I re-introduced the Streamlining Energy Efficiency for Schools Act in order to organize and better facilitate efforts to improve the energy efficiency of our schools. There are currently several programs that help schools become more energy efficient, however these programs are littered throughout our government and have varying requirements that make it challenging for schools to take full advantage of them. My bill will provide a coordinated structure so schools can more easily navigate the existing federal programs and financing options. It will cut through red tape, while still leaving it up to the states, school boards and local officials to determine what is best for their school.

  • Ensuring School Lunch Rules are Flexible and Balanced

    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.

  • Helping Rural Schools Access Broadband Internet Services

    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.

  • Helping Americans Connect to Active Outdoor Lifestyles

    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.

  • Improving No Child Left Behind

    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.

 
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