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Obama makes education pitch

Uh-oh. . . groan. Romer? Say it isn't so, Obama. As superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, Romer decried the "culture of low expectations" that filled the schools and praised teaching to the test. His idea of reform was to call for more algebra prep classes.

NOTE: Strong American Schools, which Romer chairs, is a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a nonprofit organization supported by The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Retired IBM chief Lou Gerstner and former Michigan governor John Engler are on the steering committee. So it looks like Obama is in deep with the corporate raiders.

by David Montero

The topic was education, but Barack Obama's stop Wednesday in Colorado was also a campaign event, a fundraiser and an acknowledgment of the state's battleground status in the general election.

Obama never mentioned by name Sen. John McCain - his opponent if the Illinois senator clinches the Democratic presidential nomination. Montana and South Dakota will end the party's primary season on Tuesday.

And Obama didn't directly refer to President Bush, who was in Colorado Springs for the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation in the morning.

But in case it wasn't clear that Obama was running for president, former Gov. Roy Romer introduced him loud and clear at Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts as "the next president of the United States."

This prefaced Obama's criticisms of one of Bush's signature policies - the No Child Left Behind Act that calls for all children to meet academic standards by 2014.

'Must provide the funding'

"We must provide the funding we were promised, give our states the resources they need, and finally meet our commitment to special education," Obama said.

"We also need to realize that we can meet high standards without forcing teachers and students to spend most of the year preparing for a single, high-stakes test."

That Obama chose Romer to introduce him had less to do with Romer's status as former governor and a lot more to do with Romer's zeal for the topic of eduction - he is the former superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

And Romer now heads the nonprofit group Strong American Schools, based in Washington, D.C.

"This is a man who has an ability to look at problems in a new way," Romer said of Obama. "We need that in this country."

Obama weaved his way through a variety of hot-topic issues related to schools in a state that has seen only a slight improvement in high school graduation rates over the past eight years. In 2000, according to the U.S. Census data, the graduation rate was 86.9 percent. In 2006, it was 88 percent.

Obama presented troubling numbers - namely that if the 16,000 Colorado students who dropped out of high school last year had graduated, they could expect to collectively earn an additional $4.1 billion over their lifetimes.

Schools a Ritter priority

And the state has tackled education reform as well, with Gov. Bill Ritter making it one of his top priorities.

A bill that passed the legislature earlier this month could result in seniors seeing more tests and in school districts doing assessments in subjects that aren't covered in statewide achievement tests - subjects like social studies.

Obama said that if the United States doesn't improve in educating its youth, that failure will prove economically disastrous down the road.

"There simply aren't as many jobs today that can support a family where only a high school degree is required," he said. "And if you don't have that degree, there are even fewer jobs available that can keep you out of poverty.

"In this kind of economy, countries who out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow."

Obama's town hall event - an invitation-only affair that also featured a fundraiser earlier in the day - marked another wild day of politics in Colorado.

On Tuesday, McCain gave a foreign policy speech at the University of Denver before attending his own fundraiser in Aurora.

The state's nine electoral votes - combined with the four electoral votes in New Mexico and the five in Nevada - could prove pivotal for both parties' presidential campaigns.

And Obama got a boost early Wednesday in his nomination fight with Sen. Hillary Clinton when Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak endorsed him.

"What we're seeing is proof we're a battleground state," Waak said. "There are, and will be, lots of attention and resources poured into the state."

And just to make sure Obama didn't think McCain wasn't paying attention, the Arizona senator's campaign had former Colorado Gov. Bill Owens attacking Obama. McCain's campaign also issued a statement soon after Obama's speech.

'Weak leadership'

"While in the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama has never spearheaded education reforms, which, despite his lofty rhetoric, demonstrates his weak leadership on an issue that is critical to the economic strength of our country," McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

"It's no coincidence that a leading education magazine noted that Senator Obama has made no significant mark on education policy."

But Obama talked about his desire to make an impact if elected - by reversing some aspects of No Child Left Behind and by advocating a policy that would bolster attempts to make students bilingual, or even trilingual.

He said those steps need to be taken soon.

"We as a society do a really bad job teaching foreign languages," he said. "It is costing us when it comes to being competitive in the global marketplace. One of the huge advantages India has right now in the global marketplace is, in addition to speaking their native dialect, almost everybody is an English speaker.

"Which means they can go and understand their own culture, but they automatically have absorbed American culture, British culture."

While the speech - and the several questions afterward - generated applause, one area that Christina Eyre said Obama didn't sufficiently address was vocational training.

The 39-year-old Denver resident and Obama supporter since the February caucus said it is a mistake to think every high school student is suited for college. She said more should be done to allow those teens to learn trades.

"We're always going to need people that are auto mechanics or in other trades," she said. "When we think every kid should go and graduate from college, we set some of them up for failure."

— David Montero
Rocky Mountain News


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