This commentary was submitted by Tim Taylor, president of Colorado Succeeds, and Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

In Colorado today, 26 percent of our students are not reading at grade level, as evidenced by the CSAP. The more rigorous national assessment, the NAEP test, indicates that 62 percent of incoming Colorado fourth graders read below grade level.

We know from research and experience that children who do not read well by the end of third grade are far less likely to finish high school, far less likely to attend college and far less likely to land a decent job. Not only does that have educational implications, but societal and economic impacts as well.

Colorado’s major industries are creating jobs requiring higher education. By 2018, six years from now, 67 percent of Colorado’s jobs will require some level of college. Yet, only 46 percent of our citizens are currently qualified to fill those openings. To meet that workforce demand, the state must dramatically reduce high school dropout rates and increase college completion. This process requires that we ensure our youngest students can read.

At the current rate, each class of dropouts costs Colorado $4.5 billion in lost wages over the course of their lifetimes. This compounds each year and the lost opportunities are devastating to both the individual dropout and the state’s fiscal condition.

Imagine a manufacturer losing one-quarter of its product between the beginning and the end of its own manufacturing line. In business, that would qualify as a crisis, and that is the condition of Colorado’s education system.

Because of the far-reaching implications for our state’s economy, Colorado Succeeds and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce are working to educate the business community on the urgency and importance of improving early literacy. Together, these organizations are leveraging the voices of business leaders across the state—those that recognize that the best long term economic development tool is a more productive K-12 education system.

Given the importance of literacy to our future, we are fortunate that bipartisan legislation, the Early Literacy Act (HB12-1238), is currently being considered by the Colorado General Assembly. This legislation establishes the goal and process of ensuring all students can and will read proficiently by the end of third grade. It also provides accountability, parental involvement and the proper support for teachers and students to succeed.

The bill recently passed the state House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority, but as it makes its way to the state Senate two concerns have been raised. One concern is about retention being overly aggressive and the other suggests that this bill is an unfunded mandate. We respectfully disagree with these concerns.

Regarding retention, it is critical to note that the Early Literacy Act is focused on intervening early to get kids on track before it is too late. When we intervene properly and early enough, the need for retention will be rare. It will be reserved for children who, despite consistent support, remain functionally illiterate. The repeated year would allow educators to invest another year in more aggressive strategies to help a child learn how to read. While retention is included in the policy as a last resort, it is certainly an important inclusion.

Rigorous studies of test-based retention policies and practices in places where they have been properly implemented find that it is a necessary tool to ensure that early grade literacy education appropriately prepares students for what is required in school and in life. Research demonstrates that when retention is combined with rigorous interventions, the effect on students’ achievement and their self-confidence is significant, positive, and lasting.

The alternative is passing the students along to next grade level where they will lack the reading skills necessary to keep up with their peers in every other subject. This hardly seems fair to the kids. We have raised this issue for the past two years and explored other approaches, as doing nothing is no longer an option. We have not seen a better plan. After much analysis, we are confident that a policy solution for improving early literacy must provide struggling readers with the gift of time. So what about the funding?

From 2000-2011 the state invested $200 million in early literacy programs through Reading First and Read to Achieve and Colorado’s reading proficiency rates have remained flat. At the peak, Colorado invested $27 million in the ’04-’05 and ’05-’06 school years and actually saw reading proficiency rates drop by a percentage point. At the same time, per pupil operating revenue was increasing annually from ’01-’10.

The data clearly shows that funding without a corresponding focus on early literacy is not enough. It is time to fundamentally shift the culture in our schools to make early literacy a priority for all students without excuses or exceptions.

The most recent revenue forecast is better than predicted. While it does not restore funding to previous levels, it does provide money that nobody was expecting. With the agreement about importance of early literacy, why wouldn’t we combine these additional dollars with the strong policy framework created by the Early Literacy Act to ensure that every student has the reading skills that they need to succeed?

We know that the Early Literacy Act is no silver bullet, and it will not remedy all the challenges of Colorado’s K-12 education system, but it is a sizeable and necessary step toward that goal. Unless we do something today to address this reading gap, we will not improve high school graduation rates. We will not have enough skilled workers to fill our jobs and effectively compete in the global workforce. We will not have enough qualified candidates for our military. Most importantly, we will not deliver on the inherent commitment to give every child a real chance to achieve.