Colorado Faces the Future

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

This week I’ve been writing about Colorado’s charter school sector’s delightfully high NAEP scores. To wrap this up, I’d like to put this success in a broader context of Colorado’s present and future.

So if you’ve been to Denver in the last few years, it is hard not to notice that the place is booming. The Big Bird construction cranes kind of give it away.  Growing up in oil-boom Texas, I was told about an old saying that held that if you see more than two Big Bird Cranes in a downtown area get ready for a crash. Denver seems to be defying this old nostrum comfortably. So far.

Favorable age demography stands as big if subtle factor in favor of Colorado’s boom.  The state has an unusually large working age population vis-a-vis the elderly and youth populations. Demographers quantify this through age dependency ratios- take the number of working age people (18-64) and dividing that by the combined number of 17 and younger and 65 and older. The basic idea is that at any given time working age people are pushing society’s cart, while young people are drawing upon public services such as education (for the young) and healthcare (for the elderly) at high rates.

Colorado age dependency

 

In 2010 Colorado had an age dependency ratio similar to that of the United States as a whole in the 1980s and 1990s.  Lots of working age people with relatively few elderly and young people worked wonders for the United States back then as the Baby Boomers entered their prime working, earning and taxpaying years.  We even had these quaint things called “budget surpluses” at the federal level in the 1990s while the Republicans and Democrats locked each other up and the tax revenue continued to pour in.

Ooops almost got drawn down the 1990s nostalgia event horizon. In any case with one of the nation’s lowest age dependency ratios, le bon temps continuer à rouler dans le Colorado! Perhaps Colorado will make better use of the current boom than the country made of the 1990s in education, as you see from the figure above that the Census Bureau does not project favorable age demography to last.

Colorado youth and elderly

Colorado is currently advantaged by a large middle-aged population, but middle-aged people have a funny way of becoming old.  Elderly people typically move out of their prime earning years, thus paying fewer taxes, and represent some of the most expensive patients in our health care system, some of which state taxpayers foot the bill. A growing elderly population creates strains on all other state spending priorities.

Over the next 15 years, through a combination of an expanding youth population and (mostly) through population aging, the Census Bureau projects Colorado’s total age dependency ratio to move from one of the lowest in the nation in 2010 (55) to a number that is far higher than any state in 2010 (72).  The Colorado of 2030 will have greater age demographic challenges than the Arizona or Florida of today.

One of the few things you can do about this now- world class education results. The United States largely squandered this opportunity in the 1990s, and the consequences seem ever more obvious and ominous.  The American economy may or may not be “rigged” but it seems terribly likely to seem that way to those who did not acquire the knowledge and skills to succeed in life in school. Is there any aspect of American life more rigged than K-12 education?

Colorado’s embrace of charter schools has rewarded the state with a highly effective system of schools producing globally competitive results.  A survey found that 66% of Colorado charter schools had wait lists, and they average size of the wait lists was larger than the average student enrollment of a charter school. Wonderful though it is, one can infer from this that the charter sector alone cannot satisfy parental demand for options. Colorado needs as much improvement as it can get from any and all available sources. More effective and more cost effective education is precisely what Colorado needs and what charter schools have delivered, but the pace needs to quicken.

Much of the Colorado working age population of 2030 will be going back to school in a few weeks. A slowly growing but still minority of these students show globally competitive academic achievement. The clock is ticking- Colorado has the opportunity not to repeat America’s mistakes from the 1990s, but it is far from a given. Unless you succeed, you’ll live to regret it. Colorado has however a record of success to build upon- fire up the Big Birds!

 

 

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