Living The Mission

By:Kim DeCoste Issue: Conscious Capitalism Section: Jewel Of Collaboration

Private S.T.E.M. Solutions & Public Education

“When systems fail, or produce the wrong results, big problems can result. Misunderstanding, overusing, or abusing interconnected systems can lead to regression in relationships …When connected networks work well, great productivity is possible.” -Gayle Dendinger, ICOSA Publisher

US. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan was appointed by President Barak Obama and recently referred to education as “the human rights issue of our generation.” Many agree.

The roots of the U.S. public education system go back to Jefferson and other 19th century American thinkers. For most adults today, it is a foregone conclusion that children will be educated in a public school unless their parents or guardians opt for private or home-based education. Either way, American youth have access to education.

We have seen the uptick of concern in recent years as many worry about how competitive American students are in the world. Politicians at every level here in the United States are talking about “STEM” education in particular. That is Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Most agree that the U.S. is losing the race to stay ahead in the sciences and the relative performance of U.S. students on the global stage is slipping at an alarming rate.

Ironically, the United States remains a beacon for those studying sciences at the advanced levels. Many countries worry about the issue of “brain drain” on their talent pools, especially as young educated people come to the U.S. to study and then seek to make the United States their home. Obviously, this depletes homegrown talent from foreign countries, but what does the demand for those non-US scientists and academicians say about the generations we are raising here ourselves, our own home-grown talent?

In Colorado, there is a phenomenon referred to as the “Colorado Paradox.” It is reflected by the fact that the state ranks near the bottom (47 at last count) in high school graduation rates, yet it has one of the most educated adult workforces in the country. Colorado is considered a desirable place to live, so educated workers come in increasing numbers annually. They expect their children to receive good public education services and, indeed, there are many excellent K-12 school districts and several outstanding public colleges and universities from which they can choose. The question is how are many of those programs staying competitive?

Living The Mission Here in this state and in many others, we are facing an imminent funding crisis in public education. Governor Ritter recently referred to it as a “cliff coming,” and, while he insists that he has put more new money in higher education to date, he concedes that there is an imminent challenge in 2011 when stimulus dollars from the Federal government will no longer be available. Among citizens for the most part, this problem seems to be lost amid conversations about the economy and healthcare. And, ironically, we now see government intervention in the leadership and management of private companies, like the automotive and banking industries. The opposite trend may be taking place in public education.

Here in the United States there is a trend toward private capitalization and management of schools. Results seem to indicate that private groups manage local education better than public officials or administrators of public school districts. What are the implications? Can we afford to lose the public education system in the United States?

Causes for this trend are many and too complex to present here; so is the discussion about school choice, vouchers and charter schools. These topics are worthy of discussion but are not the intended focus of this article. What we seek to portray is the good work that is being done with private money in the public education system at all levels and what can we learn about these successful initiatives as we continue to challenge the existing system in an attempt to improve it for the benefit of all who rely upon its service.

A Look at Higher Education

There have been means by which private money has been directed into institutions of higher learning for generations. Certainly even our most established private universities, Harvard and Yale, have long relied upon the good will and fiscal faith of alumni and others to help them to maintain and expand their stature. Recent reports by The Wall Street Journal do indicate, however, that, “the universities [Harvard and Yale] …said their endowments, higher education’s two largest, each lost 30% of their value in the year ending June 30. Combined, the pair of investment pools shrank by a staggering $17.8 billion.”

Similar funding challenges face public universities and colleges which are feeling the pressure of revenue shortfalls and state budget crunches across the country as well. funding challenges face public universities and colleges which are feeling the pressure of revenue shortfalls and state budget crunches across the country as well.

What are they doing to offset this problem and to evolve programs?

Metro State College of Denver

In these challenging times, people look to colleges (even community colleges, increasingly) and universities to provide real, relevant learning services. In Colorado, one-fifth of all public higher education students attend classes on the Auraria Campus in downtown Denver and the majority of those, nearly 22,000, attend Metro State. In a state with several high-profile and successful institutions of higher learning, Metro is an example of accomplishing its goals through successful private sector collaborations.

The Colorado aerospace industry is the second-largest space economy in the nation and the Aviation and Aerospace Science Department was a recent recipient of $1.5 million in a “Satellite Toolkit Grant” from Analytical Graphics

Education Alliance, Inc.

In a non-descript building just west of the main campus, cutting-edge technology is deployed to give aviation and aerospace students access to flight simulators that make Metro State's Aviation and Aerospace Science Program the sixth-largest in the nation and they offer the only four-year degree in the state.

Graduates from Metro fly for major airlines, administer and manage international airports and hold leadership positions around the country. Recent estimates from the Federal Aviation Administration suggest than more than 17,000 air traffic controllers will be needed to replace those retiring in the near future due to mandatory retirement rules. The FAA selected Metro as one of 31 colleges nationwide, and the only one in Colorado, for its Air Traffic Controller Collegiate Training initiative to help address this need. Metro is a fine example of the deployment of private money to help a traditional public institution of learning excel and produce excellent student success results.

Colorado State University

Colorado State University is a land grant university. Traditionally it was regarded by natives as the “agriculture school” in the state. These days, amazing new projects are coming not only from the Ft. Collins campus but from around the state and from new and exciting initiatives the university is delivering to further its mission, particularly in support of the sciences and often with help from private donations.

The Monfort Family Foundation provides significant funding to Colorado State University to support recruitment and retention of top-quality faculty largely in the STEM disciplines. Selection of the Monfort Professors comes from an in-depth selection process that includes nominations from all eight colleges. In addition, the Monfort-Professor-in Residence program brings accomplished leaders from business, government and the arts to campus to interact with students and enrich their learning experiences.

Some of the leaders who have visited CSU include Sylvia Earle, marine biologist and explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society; Carl Williams, civil rights attorney; Robert Fornaro, president, AirTran Airways; and Kent Rominger, former NASA space shuttle commander and Vice President of Advanced Programs, ATK Launch Systems.

Private companies and foundations have made significant investments in spinoffs that were founded on technology developed at Colorado State. Fort Collins-based Bohemian Investments, a private investment company, has contributed to CSU startup Solix Biofuels Inc., an alternative energy technology firm that is focused on developing algae into biodiesel. The Bohemian Foundation has also contributed funds to CSU startup Envirofit International, which has developed clean-burning cook stoves and two-stroke engines that are helping to solve huge environmental problems in the developing world.

The Shell Foundation committed $25 million to Envirofit to design, build and disseminate 10 million cook stoves throughout the developing world over the next several years. The company has already sold over 60,000 stoves in India alone!

Envirofit and Solix were founded at the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory (EECL) in the Mechanical Engineering department at CSU; both companies still maintain active research agreements with the EECL. Approximately 95% of the funding for the EECL comes from private sources. The EECL has partnered with companies like Caterpillar, Waukesha, Cummins and Woodward Governor on ground-breaking and innovative research.

Computer companies also have been major contributors across campus. Among the contributors are Sun Microsystems and Hewlett Packard, which have provided computers to such projects as the living-and-learning community known as the Academic Village, the Engines and Energy Conversion Laboratory and the new 45,000-square-foot Computer Science Building. The state-of-the-art computer science center features leading-edge technology to help empower students with the skill set and expertise needed to compete in the global economy.

Next door to the Computer Science Building is the Warner College of Natural Resources, named after Edward M. Warner, renowned geologist, philanthropist and distinguished alumnus, who donated $30 million in 2005 to position the college as a global leader in research and education. The gift led to the first named college at Colorado State and one of only a few named public colleges or schools of natural resources in the nation. Warner's gift is the largest in the history of Colorado State University and is believed to be the largest private gift given to name any U.S. public college of natural resources. The gift has allowed for great strides in geological education, research, and oil, gas and mineral exploration. The gift also created two endowed chairs in geophysics and economic geology at Colorado State.

And finally, no look at CSU would be complete without a nod to The College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences which continues to attract significant private dollars in such areas as equine sciences. Several endowed chairs (for professors) have also been created in recent years, including the Ken and Virginia Atkinson Chair for Musculoskeletal Imaging, the Abigail K. Kawananakoa University Chair in Equine Musculoskeletal Integrative Therapies and the Iron Rose Ranch University Chair in Equine Reproduction. Other donors have endowed a graduate cancer biology program and a professorship of complementary and alternative medicine, the first of their kind in the country.

Examples of private funding for public higher education abound across the country. What is clear is that with increasing pressure from legislative budget cuts at the state level in particular, traditional public universities will have to continue the creative pursuit of private money to remain competitive here in the United States and among competing campuses around the world.

Private Money at Work in K-12 Schools

Generally the burden for funding K-12 public education is controlled at the state and local level and the means by which funding is sent to, received by and deployed in a school district varies by state, by region and by district. Few realize that public education was not originally conceived as a federally managed program. Much of this lies in the fundamental belief that favors local control.

Under Ronald Reagan, government expanded to include a Cabinet- level post for a Secretary of Education. Some argue this was the beginning of a trend that continues today with federal “oversight” and intervention in the administration of public education. Certainly more recent matters such as the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind have created additional pressure on the public education system. Some call this an example of an unfunded mandate. Some see it is an attempt to impose accountability and standards on the system. Either way, it is clear that there is a messy mix of issues clouding our ability to drive success in our K-12 public schools. Accountability is easy to pass along at every level. In a meeting earlier this month, current Education Secretary Duncan stated that, “...the biggest problem with NCLB is that it doesn't encourage high learning standards. In fact, it inadvertently encourages states to lower them. The net effect is that we are lying to children and parents by telling kids they are succeeding when they are not." He further encouraged educators and lawmakers to immediately reauthorize the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Though many points around education are disputable, what is not disputed is that school funding and school performances are, in many cases, at all-time low levels in American public schools, particularly in the STEM disciplines.

SAT scores among U.S. students (of all races) peaked in the early 2000’s but are now trending downward according to the College Board. The trends disappoint those in education who hoped to see improvement. According to Chester E. Flynn, Jr., President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C., “If there is any good news here, I can’t find it.” He further commented that he expects this to drive the conversation among governors and superintendents to seek national standards.

Yet is the challenge of STEM education being handled in the meantime? In a very ad hoc way. Districts turn increasingly to the good-will of private individuals, private companies and PTOs to fund, manage and sometimes even deliver services they used to deploy with different autonomy.

Principal Gina Smith of Acres Green Elementary School in the Douglas County School District, south of Denver, looks to her PTO to continue to fund programs in the 2009-2010 school year that used to be funded by the district. In the past two school years under the direction of PTO President, businessman and father of three, Brad Levy, the Acres Green PTO spent over $125,000, which was raised by the PTO to fund summer school reading remediation, the acquisition of sound systems to help improve student learning in the classrooms, the creation of a science lab, the purchase of library materials, supporting teacher grants for classroom materials like art, music and additional reading supplies, as well as physical and outdoor education programs.

These monies were raised by selling cookie dough, by an annual school auction, through the annual student race for education, by clipping box tops and with the support of local businesses like Whole Foods, Papa John’s Pizza, Red Robin and Taco Bell, to name a few. Without the effort of the PTO and the support of the school’s families, over 700 kids in the 6th wealthiest county in the United States would not have had access to those services. Douglas County voters did not pass bonds last year that resulted in $58 million in budget cuts that will take place over the next 3 years. The district’s operating budget of $450 million is being carefully managed to minimize the impact on student learning, but clearly it is a challenge to remain competitive under such circumstances. Without private partnerships and private money, one could only speculate what might happen to one of the highest-performing districts in the state that currently serves over 54,000 students.

There are conversations about private STEM academies coming to the district backed by major employers in the area. One such proposal that is circulating is for the construction of a $200 million STEM Academy. Advocates for the STEM Academy argue that, “community leaders who are working to build STEM High and Academy believe that the habitual disconnect between education and industry must be replaced with a mission of academic relevance.”

One can imagine the challenges for a district facing $58 million in budget cuts to argue for or against such an academy operating within its district. Clearly “industry” in this case does not want to deploy the $200 million to the existing public school system. While such a school that seeks to show how “the finest teachers will be recruited into a professional environment with deserving salaries that are augmented with summer internships in … [the] high tech industry” is a blessing to the students it will serve, it could also be a challenge to the district in which it must operate. Can the two find a middle ground that benefits as many students as possible? Certainly that must be the goal, but it is a challenging conversation.

Examples such as these are myriad and can be found all across the United States. Answers are not easy and academic and political leaders must grapple with many issues to attempt to resolve this challenge.

In the spirit of ICOSA, which advocates for collaboration and cooperation to address and solve the most difficult questions, we can only hope that a productive conversation can lead to definitive action to channel the good will and good funding resources available to support the public education system we enjoy. Clearly public education is not free and clearly it is a benefit to all in our society and around the world who stand to benefit from the innovation and hard work of future generations of American learners.

Kim DeCoste Is President of DeCoste & Associates. Contact Kim at or call 303.470.9898