Doug Robinson, GOP candidate for governor, wants more authority to fix state’s struggling schools

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Doug Robinson would like to see a fundamental change to Colorado’s public education system — one that gives the governor’s office far more authority.

Robinson, a former investment banker and nephew of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Tuesday in an interview that he believes a lack of gubernatorial oversight has led to stagnation, especially in low-performing schools.

“That’s frankly one of the reasons why we’ve not had a lot of the successes other states have had,” he said. “We have limited tools to encourage them to make changes.”

Robinson spoke to Chalkbeat in advance of the formal unveiling this week of his education platform.

One of several GOP candidates, Robinson is calling for greater investments in charter schools and STEM education, and for reforming the state’s teacher licensure policies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your education plan calls for expanding school choice. What does that look like and what role do private school vouchers play?

It looks like the state encouraging all of our local school districts to expand choice to all of our families.

My priority is to advocate for more choice inside the school systems we already have, and making sure all schools are getting the resources they need to compete effectively. I was very supportive of the bill to make sure charter schools got all of the mill levy revenues traditional schools are getting.

I’m open to tax credits and vouchers, but we need to proceed carefully. That might be part of the solution, but you can’t start with that or else you’ll open up a world war within the education community.

What sort of specific resources or policies would you support to improve district-run schools?

The challenge today for the governor of Colorado is that the governor doesn’t have direct control of schools like the governor does in most other states. So the governor doesn’t get to appoint anybody to the state board or the department of education. And we have local control, which is generally a good thing. So the school district gets to decide a lot of things.

A lot of governors have said, “I don’t have a lot to do here.” But what the governor has is the power of the bully pulpit.

I’d encourage statutory changes to do something like what Louisiana has done to create a Recovery School District. I fundamentally believe there isn’t a population in the state that, with the right school leadership and teachers, can’t produce great results for our kids.

I would advocate for the governor to be able to appoint the head of the department of education. And I would advocate for giving the department of education — statutorily — a bigger stick to compel accountability.

Generally, I’m a fan of more local control. You have high standards and you let the local districts get there. But if they’re failing, we need a way to reconstitute those schools. We need to do it for the kids. We cannot allow poor performance to continue.

You’re calling for public-private partnerships to increase access to STEM education. It takes a lot of time and human resources for schools to go out and create those partnerships. How would you ensure that all schools, especially those that might not have an extra teacher or aide to spare, can create those partnerships?

That’s a role where government and the governor’s office, working with the department of education, can help identify businesses or nonprofits in these communities that are looking for talent and a desire to give back and make a difference and connect them together.

Your platform says, “We must improve our (teacher) evaluation system, so we can pay our best more.” But the state’s evaluation system isn’t connected to pay. And that’s something local school districts decide. Are you suggesting this is something the state should take over — teacher salary?

No. This is more of a bully pulpit. I would not suggest the state board of education set compensation. That’s the district’s job. But we should advocate for school districts to make differentiation based on performance and to have incentives.

Even though there is a lot of research out there that suggests it doesn’t work?

There’s also research that shows that it does. I look at the experiences in some of the schools in the metro region. And business experience leads me to believe incentive compensation does work.

You’re calling for teacher licensure reform. This is something that has vexed lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper. What are your ideas around reform and how are you going to succeed where others have failed?

Fundamentally, we want to put our best talent on the field. We ought to allow districts across the state to compensate and incentivize teachers to do well, and pay the physics teachers more than the gym teacher. That’s not universally happening across the state.

Whoever is the next governor, and I hope it’s me, will have an opportunity for a fresh start. It’s around leadership. It’s about a restart with a new governor. And you bring people together. And there is some compromise. And you agree to a plan. And you execute it.

You start with those harder to hire areas, such as STEM, and you provide a way for school districts to hire the talent that they need to fill those jobs and get the best teachers in the classroom. You make the reforms to allow that to happen.

Maybe they would not have to have a full teaching certificate. Districts need to be able to hire people from industry with significant experience, and who are willing to get some additional training, but not have to go back to college to get into a classroom.