Looking ahead

Michael Johnston, architect of Colorado’s teacher evaluation system, considering bid for governor

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a former principal who designed the state’s landmark teacher evaluation law and is a prominent figure in Colorado’s education reform movement, is considering joining what could be a crowded Democratic primary field for the 2018 governor’s race.

Johnston’s name has appeared in early reports speculating about potential candidates, and he has confirmed to Chalkbeat and other media that he is weighing a run.

Other Democrats whose names have been floated as possible candidates are former U.S. Sen. and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, and former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, first elected in 2010, is term-limited. 

“The question for me is, ‘Where can you make the most impact on the issues you care about?’” Johnston said in an interview Thursday. “(It’s) not ‘What is it that you want to be?’ But, ‘What is it that you want to change?’”  

Johnston, whose state Senate tenure will end next month because of term limits, declined to identify possible positions or campaign themes. As a legislator, he focused on a variety of issues besides education, including criminal justice reform, and — to a lesser degree — energy and the state’s rural economy.

Johnston, a Denver Democrat, is considered a rising star in his party. He’s been recognized by TIME magazine and The New York Times. And he’s well-known in education circles inside and outside of Colorado. But his name recognition across the state can’t compare to Salazar’s or Perlmutter’s.

“I have tremendous respect for all the folks who are thinking about it,” Johnston said, but added that potential opponents would not factor into his decision on whether to run.  

Democrats in past election cycles have coalesced around one gubernatorial candidate and avoided prolonged primaries, said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver.

“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen the Democrats go at it in a primary,” he said.

But that could change now that voters have approved an open primary system in which unaffiliated voters may be able to participate in primary elections. In Colorado, about 36 percent of registered voters are not affiliated with any political party. They make up the state’s largest voting bloc.

“I don’t think we have a good sense of what that means yet,” Masket said. “You may get a wider range of people with different backgrounds. We might see more outsiders throwing their hats into races.”

One challenge facing a potential Johnston candidacy is his work on teacher evaluations and other reforms, which has put him at odds with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. The union and other labor groups play a large role in Democratic politics.

Johnston, 42, was born and raised in Vail.

After graduating from Yale, he joined Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach for two years, typically in low-income neighborhoods. Johnston taught in Mississippi and wrote a book about the students he met.

He later got a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale. During this time he consulted on a number of political campaigns, including Tom Strickland’s unsuccessful 2002 Senate bid.  

In 2005, he was hired by Mapleton Public Schools to lead a new high school in Thornton, a suburb of Denver. The school served mostly low-income black and Latino students.

In 2008, he was an education adviser to Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama delivered a key education speech at Johnston’s school.

Johnston was  appointed to the state Senate in 2009. He won his seat in 2010 and was re-elected in 2012.

Johnston currently runs Traverse, a policy consulting firm. He also helps manage a nonprofit that focuses on training civic leaders. He lives with his wife, Courtney, and three children in northeast Denver.

rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

early running

Denver school board race opens up as Rosemary Rodriguez announces she won’t seek re-election

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Board member Rosemary Rodriguez speaks at Abraham Lincoln High (Chalkbeat file)

Denver school board member Rosemary Rodriguez said Wednesday that she is not running for re-election, putting her southwest Denver seat up for grabs in what will likely be a contentious school board campaign this fall with control of the board at stake.

Rodriguez told Chalkbeat she is retiring from her job as senior advisor to Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and plans to sell her home and buy a smaller one that belonged to her grandparents.

That home is not in her school board district, District 2, but in the district represented by board member Lisa Flores. With the exception of at-large members, Denver school board members must live in the districts they represent.

“If it weren’t the case, I would still be running,” Rodriguez said.

During her four-year tenure, Rodriguez worked with community groups and others to spotlight student achievement in southwest Denver, leading to new schools and better transportation.

Former Denver Public Schools teacher and Denver native Angela Cobian announced Wednesday that she is running for the seat. Rodriguez has endorsed Cobian, a political newcomer who works for the nonprofit Leadership for Educational Equity, which helps Teach for America members and alumni get involved in politics and advocacy.

All seven current board members support Denver’s nationally known brand of education reform, which includes a “portfolio” of traditional district-run, charter, magnet and innovation schools.

With four of the the board’s seats up for grabs this November, the campaign presents an opportunity for opponents of those reforms to again try to get a voice on the board.

The field is still very much taking shape. The most competitive race so far involves District 4 in northeast Denver. Incumbent Rachele Espiritu, who was appointed to the seat last year, announced her campaign earlier this month. The board chose Espiritu after its initial pick, MiDian Holmes, withdrew after a child abuse case came to light and she was not forthcoming with all the details.

Also filing paperwork to run in District 4 is Jennifer Bacon, who was a finalist in the process that led to the board picking Espiritu. Auontai “Tay” Anderson, the student body president of Manual High School, declared his candidacy for the northeast Denver seat in April.

Incumbents Mike Johnson and Barbara O’Brien have not yet filed election paperwork with the state. Two candidates have declared for O’Brien’s at-large seat: Julie Banuelos and Jo Ann Fujioka.