As the “light at the end of the tunnel” of the COVID-19 pandemic comes more clearly into focus, we’re all beginning to look forward to returning to something that more closely resembles normal. For many Coloradans, that includes the return to in-person school.

Our educators and students (not to mention their families) have worked tirelessly over the last 12 months to minimize the impact the coronavirus has had on educational outcomes, but clearly many students have fallen behind or, worse, are further behind than they were before the pandemic started.

The pre-pandemic reality was that, for too many of our kids, educational outcomes and enrichment opportunities vary based on their family’s income, their race, where they live, whether English is the primary language spoken at home, or any of countless other variables.  The pandemic has only made the situation more dire.

Andy Kerr

We cannot give our children the future they deserve when majorities of them are falling behind.

I know from personal experience that our hard-working educators often find their hands are tied as classrooms grow more crowded and they compete for resources. Some families can afford to pay for tutors and other out-of-school attention — but too many cannot. 

We can — and must — do better.

That’s why I’m supporting the LEAP ballot initiative, proposed for Colorado’s fall election, to help families access a variety of approved out-of-school learning activities, including tutors in social studies, reading, math, science, or writing; extra services for special needs students; and career and technical education training programs.

LEAP stands for Learning Enrichment and Academic Progress. This new program would help close the learning gaps so that students — particularly those of color and those living in poverty — can leap ahead.

The LEAP program would be funded by a phased in sales-tax increase on recreational marijuana and revenue from extractive, agricultural and renewable energy developments on state land.

This first-of-its-kind measure has been developed by education experts from across the state to help our students meet their pressing educational needs. If passed, it would provide equity and flexibility for Colorado’s K-12 students so they can sharpen their skills and add new ones.

The $1,500 in annual funding per student would go to out-of-school instruction, with priority given to those whose family incomes are at or near the federal poverty level. The money could be used for a variety of opportunities, including tutoring for reading, math, social studies, writing, and science, as well as support for students with special needs and enrichment activities.

It could not be used for tuition or anything else that smacks of vouchers or threatens to undermine our public schools.

Recent national tests showed us that just 40% of Colorado fourth-graders were proficient readers, with about 20% of low-income students scoring proficient or higher. More than half of Colorado third- through eighth-grade students fail to meet grade-level expectations in reading, writing, or math on state tests. The results get worse when you look at them based on income, race, and geography.

As educators and students continue to cope with online learning, hybrid instruction, and other pandemic-inspired impacts to K-12 education, the need to provide our students with tutoring, supplemental instruction, and enrichment programming is only intensifying.

The measure has earned early support from dozens of community leaders from across Colorado as well as heavyweights from education and policy circles, including state Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora; Mike Johnston, CEO of Gary Community Investments and a former state senator; Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education; and Thorne Nature Experience.

In the end, this issue transcends nearly every political, geographic, economic, and racial group, and should be able to find broad support at the polls.

Colorado has a unique opportunity to help our kids — and therefore our educators and schools — succeed, and we must seize this moment to make a difference in their lives.

Please join me in working to help Colorado kids leap toward the future they deserve.

Andy Kerr, a Jefferson County commissioner, has been a social studies teacher in Colorado for over 20 years, including teaching online for the past eight years. As a state legislator, he served on the education committees in both the House and the Senate and served as chair of the Senate Education Committee for two years.

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