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An Education in Luring Top Minds


Colorado State Sen. Brandon Shaffer never would have joined the Navy had it not been for a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship. Shaffer might have paid his debt of public service some other way. But getting talented people into the military, even temporarily, helps the country.

Shaffer, a Longmont Democrat, figures the same thing applies to recruiting teachers to work in rural and inner-city public schools. So he borrowed on his own ROTC experience to find a solution.

There’s not really a name for it, Shaffer explains as he sits in the Senate chamber at the end of a long legislative work day.

“The idea is about encouraging kids who might not otherwise go into the teaching profession to accept scholarships and do their civic duty,” he says.

The bill Shaffer introduced enables such a program. He calls it his favorite law of the current legislative session. It seeks $500,000 to pay tuition scholarships for well-qualified high school grads to go to public colleges in Colorado. To be considered for the scholarships, students must enroll in teacher prep programs. They also get preference if they specialize in subject areas where teachers are in short supply— science, math and English acquisition.

Shaffer originally hoped for a $1 million budget and scholarships focused strictly on science and math to any school in the state—public or private. He also wanted students to commit to a year of teaching for every year of scholarship money they received. Amendments in the Senate education committee watered things down significantly. But Shaffer knows that when you set up important programs with tax dollars, you crawl before you walk and walk before you run.

So when he found half a million bucks in the general fund, he jumped on it.

“Basically, the scholarship money can be spent on any college student who indicates he/she intends to go into teaching,” Shaffer says. “The scholarship can be used to pay for a student’s last 60 course hours.”

With the possible exception of anti-government curmudgeons, folks shouldn’t find it too hard to understand the cost-benefit analysis of this concept. With amendments, Shaffer’s bill passed the education committee. Shaffer expects it to pass the appropriations committee and Senate in time for it to be considered by the House of Representatives.

“I think this bill has a good chance,” he says. “We’ve designated it as one of the Senate’s priority education bills.”

Whatever the bill’s final scope, the trick is to get the best minds instructing in public school classrooms.

“What I’m going for are the top-ranked kids in our high schools,” Shaffer says. “We want to encourage people who wouldn’t ordinarily go into teaching to go into it. That’s where I was when I took the military scholarship. I wouldn’t have gone in the military without the scholarship.”

He might still have gone to Stanford, but he would have graduated with unpaid loans equal to the mortgage of a home.

Those who don’t think the lure of a tuition-free undergraduate degree is powerful bait, need only visit websites of the state’s public and private colleges. In-state tuition at the University of Colorado at Boulder totals $6,635 for a normal fall-spring academic year. It’s easy to see why the National Honor Society crowd will look seriously at Shaffer’s plan.

What Shaffer hopes to create is “a steady flow of teachers over the years.”

He’s looking for the state to partner with private groups, such as the Daniels Fund and the Piton Foundation, that share an interest in improving education. Together, the public and private players might use matching-fund agreements to collect more donations. Shaffer is also looking to integrate his teacher program with existing state scholarship programs.

Mostly, though, he’s looking for money, which is why he agreed to the diluted program that’s working its way through the legislature. Shaffer’s idea depends on marrying the needs of various interests to create a coalition with enough clout to make the scholarship plan work.

He wants a group that includes representatives from the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, teachers and college faculty to help make the calls on who gets the scholarships. They’ll look at grade point averages, SAT and ACT scores, and extra-curricular activities.

“This is merit-based,” Shaffer says. “This is: You worked your butt off in high school and now qualify for a prestigious scholarship. And on the other side of it, you do your civic duty.”

Sounds like a great public investment.

This is Jim Spencer’s final column. Read about where he’s going and who we’ve lured to replace him.

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