Exit interview

State Sen. Michael Johnston reflects on six years of education reform as term ends

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston with his children on the Senate floor at the start of the 2012 session.

When Colorado lawmakers come together on Jan. 11, one of the most influential — and controversial — legislators to work on education policy this decade won’t be there.

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a Democrat who was first appointed to represent northeast Denver in 2009, is term-limited and won’t be back. He is, however, considering a bid to run for governor.

Before everyone begins focusing on the next legislative session (and the 2018 governor’s race), we sat down with Johnston to discuss his work on teacher evaluations, school funding, the future of the reform movement and why some people consider him the enemy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You ran your landmark bill that fundamentally changed the way teachers were evaluated and dismissed, Senate Bill 191, your first year in the legislature. Why was that your No. 1 priority? Were you afraid of losing any political capital?

I had been a teacher. I lived through the world of having evaluations that were meaningless and I couldn’t improve my practice. And I came into the legislature straight out of being a high school principal for six years. I felt I had the chance to learn a lot about what was working and what wasn’t working.

Evaluations felt sort of like health care — everyone knows the system is broken, but they didn’t agree on how to fix it. It seemed like the purpose of serving in the legislature was to get big things done. And that was more important than preserving political capital.

There are many facets to 191. One portion of the bill actually had its day in front of the state Supreme Court last week. What’s working with the law and what isn’t?

The thing we always knew would take time would be developing the culture of gathering and evaluating student data. We left a lot of flexibility for districts to do that. We figured some districts would be really innovative and find better ways than others would.

So unlike other states that mandated tethering data to a single test, we gave more flexibility about what test could be used.

One thing I’m convinced that is not working is schools that are using one single indicator for all teachers’ growth measures. So if they’re just using a fifth-grade English score to drive the growth metrics of a third-grade art teacher or an eighth-grade science teacher — that to me is not in the spirit of the bill.

It’s supposed to be about improvement and to improve it has to be about your own performance. So I’m more encouraged by the districts who are working with their teachers to find a way to measure growth in art in third grade and science in eighth grade.

Amy Erickson, policy director of the Senate majority office, left, listens to remarks with Sen. Mike Johnston, right, and his wife Courtney during an Amendment 66 watch party at the Marriott City Center in Denver on Nov. 5. Amendment 66 was defeated. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Do you still believe a teacher’s evaluation should be based on how well students perform, even as some supporters of that idea have backed off?

I do. I think the notion that you can separate the success of adults from the success of kids — I don’t find that to be meaningful to the educators I know who are interested in making an impact.

Now, are there nuances of how you measure that? It’s as much art as it is science. Do I believe one score on one day is ever the picture of a student’s performance? No. But what teachers have done for generations, at the end of every semester, they give a student a grade that is the result of a complex analysis of a combination of skills and performance and demonstration of those skills.

There’s a similar complexity we want to gather about teachers. I think there is lots of work to do on how to fine-tune that, but I think that basic principle is as important today as it was then.

Talk to me about Amendment 66, which would have raised about a billion dollars in taxes for schools. Was that the biggest setback in your career?

I think so. Certainly, biggest failure. I have a lot of wise friends who say you learn more from your failures than your successes. That was certainly true.

What did you learn?

There is a reason we haven’t passed a statewide tax increase during the last 25 years of the TABOR era. People are very, very skeptical of taxes in a general application. And people are very, very skeptical of statewide taxes.

What does SB 191 do?
Senate Bill 191 rewrote many of the state’s laws regarding teacher evaluations, and hiring and firing practices. Here’s a look at some of what’s in SB 191.
  • Requires annual evaluations for teachers and administrators to “provide a basis for making decisions in the areas of hiring, compensation, promotion, assignment, professional development, earning and retaining non-probationary status, dismissal, and nonrenewal of contract.”
  • At least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on the academic growth of students, and at least 50 percent of a principal’s evaluation is to be determined by the academic growth of students in a school and the effectiveness of the school’s teachers.
  • Probationary teachers must have three consecutive years of demonstrated effectiveness to gain non-probationary status and non-probationary teachers who receive two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations return to probation.
  • A teacher may be placed in a school only with the consent of the principal and the advice of at least two teachers who work at that school.
  • Effective non-probationary teachers who aren’t placed in a school will go into a priority hiring pool.
  • Non-probationary teachers who lose their jobs because of staff reductions will be given lists of all available jobs in their districts.
  • A non-probationary teacher who doesn’t find another job within 12 months or two hiring cycles will be placed on unpaid leave.
  • Teacher effectiveness, then seniority, will be considered when layoffs are made.

A person who I considered a friend was the statewide voice opposing Amendment 66 and was also the proponent of his own local district’s bond and mill levy override. So there are folks who you could get to support local districts but are much more skeptical about a statewide measure. The challenge is if you only allow a patchwork of local measures, you’re going to expand inequality across the state with places like Greeley and Pueblo that have never passed an override.

You need a really broad coalition if you’re going to do something that has never been done before — pass a large tax measure in this state. We lost the chambers (of commerce), and we lost the business community. I thought we could have won without the deep backing of that community. We were wrong about that.

I also thought one of the mistakes we made was that we were not clear about what was at stake. I think what we did was spend two years on a very complicated problem of school finance and the way it’s not equitable and inadequate, and — I’ll take responsibility for this — we didn’t think we could communicate that effectively in 15-second TV spots. So we tried to simplify the message down to the emotional resonance of what school felt like — art and P.E. and small class sizes. That was a mistake.

We need to engage people in a deep conversation around the fact that there are profound inequalities and inadequacies in the way schools are funded.

Another failure of Amendment 66 is that we didn’t just lose the vote count. It was that we didn’t use that opportunity to build a movement for further remedies of the same problem. People just saw it as the schools asked for more money. I think we failed to create the understanding of the problem, which would have kept people at the table to help solve the problem a different way.

I do think the upside is we did exactly what the Constitution asked us to do. We didn’t skirt TABOR. We didn’t play dirty tricks.

The other thing I learned is that when you’re defeated, you pick yourself back up. And that’s what we did. The next session, we came back and passed the Student Succeeds Act, which was, as far as I can tell, the single largest one-time investment in Colorado’s history. We put $400 million back into K-12. We put in one of the key improvements of the system, which was this financial transparency component. We looked for innovative ways to do what we wanted to for preschool and full-day kindergarten, which was the Pay-For-Success legislation. It will allow us to finance early ed in a different way.

People said, on some of these things, we don’t want to pay new taxes. So we went back and found ways under the current budget to find new revenue for schools and found new ways to find expansions of existing programs, like early childhood education, without adding new taxes.

Do you think there can be comprehensive school finance reform passed in the legislature without new taxes?

I think Amendment 66 (and it’s companion legislation Senate Bill 213) proved is that it’s going to be very hard to solve the problems of school funding equity with solving the problems of school funding adequacy. The reason why Amendment 66 got so expensive is because it tried to do both at the same time. I’m skeptical we can solve one of those problems without the other. And I’d hate to solve adequacy without solving equity.

The state enacted many education reform efforts between 2008 and 2012. And then, momentum behind the movement appeared to hit a roadblock. Some might say there was a pushback that led to the testing debate of 2015. What happened?

For me, it was very deliberate. It was always the conversation: Let’s build the system and then let’s adequately fund the system. So, I spent my first three years, which included the READ Act and the ASSET bill, making dramatic improvements up and down the system.

Gov. John Hickenlooper shakes hands with Sen. Mike Johnston after signing SB 13-213.

(The READ Act created a new system to identify students in kindergarten through third grade with reading disabilities. The ASSET bill provided in-state tuition for students who were born in another country but brought to the U.S. illegally as a student and graduated from a Colorado high school.)

We thought it would rebuild the public’s faith that the system should be funded more adequately. So the next phase of the work was funding, which was Senate Bill 213, Amendment 66 and the Student Success Act. Then, as I went around the state and talked to educators, they would say, “We believe this is the right work. But we also believe it’s incredibly complicated. We’re willing to be engaged and solve this. But you need to leave us alone for awhile for us to do that.”

So when people came to me in 2014 and 2015 and 2016 and they ask me what my next big crazy education idea is, I would say the idea is to help support educators in the big ideas we already have.

If you take any other profession and change the entire bulk of what you do, how you measure what you do and how you’re evaluated on what you do, all that the same time, that’s a huge overhaul.

Was it too much?

I don’t think so. There were a lot of unsung heroes in this work — like state Sen. Bob Bacon, who said, “We believe this is is the right thing to do. But let’s not pretend like we can do this in one year. Let’s give ourselves five years to implement.” Which is why this work has been gradual — and why I think it’s been more successful here than in some states.

In 2015, lawmakers took on the state’s testing system. While many of your peers were eager to cut testing, you were a staunch defender of the system. At times, it seemed like you might have been the only one standing up for testing. Did you ever feel lonely?

No. Some of the groups who came in to say, “Don’t throw this all out” were teachers. I think of the social studies test debate. Everyone said, ‘We don’t need this test.’ Then a bunch of social studies teachers showed up and said “Wait a second.” If you remember, that’s why a bill that looked like it was going to breeze through suddenly died at the Senate Ed committee. Teachers showed up en masse.

I had done a lot of traveling through the state to sit with third grade and second grade teachers during assessments. I believed they were right that there was a lot of duplicative assessments that needed to be streamlined. So I was supportive of the fact that we reduced testing by more than any of the other 49 states that year. I was glad to vote for it. I was also glad that we maintained some spine of data so we could track growth year to year.

That was a good example of how when good people are willing to work together and sit in the same room over and over and over, you get good outcomes.

Unfinished business?

There’s a lot.

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

Early childhood education is a huge piece of unfinished business. College access and affordability is a huge part of unfinished business. And I think all of the implementation that’s going to go around to perfect the system we’re trying to build is going to need a lot of time and resources.

What do you think distinguishes education reform in Colorado compared to the rest of the country?

I think we are distinctly more collaborative and thoughtful. I think we’re more patient. And I think we have a broader coalition of people who support us that goes well beyond the Capitol. It includes nonprofit leaders and civil right leaders and business leaders, people who have been engaged in this work for a long, long time. We’ve tried as much as possible to avoid it being a conversation of blame and more about improvement. I think there is just a tenor of how the conversation has gone.

Look, Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) supported 191. She’s one of the most vocal union leaders in the country. But we talked to them early, we solved problems with them. They felt this was work they wanted to be a part of and work they could support. Other parts of the country, they found evaluations very hard. Here, the purpose was different. The work was lead by practitioners. We included practitioners in all the conversations. There were 205 amendments proposed to 191. Almost everyone I took was from an educator who walked through door was from an educator who said I had missed something important.

I think that’s made it very different.

How do you hope to shape the education debate from outside of the Capitol?

There’s a great new generation of leaders coming into the Capitol. I’ll be an ear or a sounding board for them as they get up and situated. I do find there are real upsides to term limits. You get more turnover in leadership and new ideas. The downside is you lose institutional memory. This year, there will be a very small number of people in either chamber who were there when we approved 191. So those new lawmakers weren’t there for the 300 people who spoke about why this bill mattered.

I want to be a resource, not just for 191, but for the much broader vision: early childhood education, attracting and retaining great teachers, making sure kids have access to any opportunity they want. It’s about situating individual parts of the debate into the bigger vision. I find when people see the bigger vision, they’re more supportive or more helpful with their feedback.

You’re a very polarizing figure. Why do you think that is?

I find I’m far less polarizing to people who know me. I think people who know me and work with me on a daily basis have a clearer sense for what my values are and that I’m going to try to get things done in a way that is respectful to everyone involved. If you talk with teachers I’ve worked with, even the folks who have come to oppose legislation I’ve been a part of, I’ve sat down with anyone who came to my door. And the more we did, the more we agreed than disagreed. I think there are people who spend a lot of time and effort trying to make a boogeyman. But people who sit down and work with me don’t have that perception. And it’s true in other policy areas. The ACLU disagreed with my work on felony DUIs. We sat down and reached a consensus. They didn’t love the idea, but they realized it was important. I was both respected and committed at the same time. But I also think I listened. I found that at close range, I’m much less of either pole.

shot callers

Rico Munn’s inner circle: Meet the team leading Aurora’s district improvements

Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

In five years as Aurora superintendent, Rico Munn has brought lots of change to a district that is one of the most diverse in the state and now gentrifying.

The district has become a place that is more open to charter schools, that has more flexibility for schools, and that has recently shown enough improvement to get off of the state’s watchlist for low-performance.

Recently, more change came with the election of four new union-backed union-backed board members after a campaign that saw more outside money than in any recent years.

The district still faces significant challenges, like declining enrollment and the task of improving academic achievement at several schools that are low-performing, including Aurora Central High School, which is now on a state-ordered plan for improvement.

The school board has offered Munn a two-year contract extension. A vote on that contract is set for Tuesday. Munn recently filled one of his cabinet positions after having an interim in the position since September when former chief academic officer, John Youngquist, left to return to Denver Public Schools.

With new members on Munn’s leadership team, officials are embarking on several significant projects, including writing a budget for next school year and working on a process to create a new strategic plan to guide the district through enrollment changes. Some schools have declining enrollment while the city rapidly expands on its eastern boundaries.

Here is a look at the seven people who report directly to Munn who are working on those projects, based on information provided by the district.

Marcelina Rivera

Marcelina Rivera, chief of strategic management
Salary: $160,121
Job description: To provide leadership, direction, and guidance for the chiefs of finance, human resources, support services, and the director of accountability and research. Leads the work related to how human and material resources are used to support the teaching and learning initiatives in the district. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive resource support for the academic improvement of all students. Aligns work with the chief academic officer. Drives the work in the school district’s strategic plan.

Bio: Rivera took the Aurora position in 2015. She has a law degree and previously worked at Yale Law School. Most recently, Rivera owned her own consulting firm, was an adjunct lecturer in English as a Second Language at the University of Denver, served as executive director of the Latino Community Foundation of Colorado, and was assistant superintendent and general counsel to The New America Schools.

Andre Wright, chief academic officer

Andre Wright. (Courtesy of Aurora Public Schools).

Salary: $171,000
Job description: Responsible for providing leadership, direction, and guidance for the strategic initiatives and day-to-day operations of the Division of Equity in Learning. Develops clear goals, processes, timelines, and messaging to drive academic improvement for all students. Leads the work to provide school-specific support to roll out district initiatives. Aligns work with the chief of strategic management on use of human and material resources.

Bio: Wright was appointed interim chief academic officer in September. Prior to the appointment, Wright served as a director of learning, overseeing a group of 10 schools since July 2014. Before coming to Aurora, Wright was area executive director for the Northeast Learning Community in the Atlanta-area Fulton County School System. He also served as a principal, instructional leader and assistant principal and first began his education career teaching middle school language arts.

Damon Smith

Damon Smith, chief personnel officer
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for coordinating all employment issues for the district, including overseeing all personnel budgets, troubleshooting issues, negotiating contracts with the local bargaining unit, recruiting, training, allocating, evaluating, and terminating staff. Also responsible for writing, revising, and rolling out policy and procedures, and representing the Human Resources Department on committees, boards, and councils.

Bio: Smith took over his current position in 2011, but has worked in public education for 26 years, serving as a school social worker, dean of students, assistant principal, principal, and central office administrator in the Denver and Aurora school districts. Smith earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and master’s degree from the University of Denver. Smith is also a graduate of Aurora Public Schools and has been a member of the Aurora community since 1975.

Patti Moon

Patti Moon, chief communications officer
Salary: $136,171
Job description: Provide leadership in developing, achieving, and maintaining proactive planning and communication outputs for district initiatives. Continually coordinate, analyze, and evaluate complex ideas and situations and communicate these items in easy-to-understand language. Also required to effectively communicate, negotiate, and advise. Also provides communications or public relations training, counsel, and advice to schools and departments.

Bio: Moon joined Aurora as the public information officer in March 2014. She was named the chief communications officer in February 2017. Prior to working for the district, Moon was a television journalist who worked in Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Chicago, and Washington D.C. She was a TV reporter and anchor working on stories on a wide range of topics including education, health, and crime. Moon earned both her bachelor and master’s degrees in journalism from Northwestern University. She is fluent in Korean and speaks French conversationally. Moon is a Colorado native who graduated from Lakewood High School.

Brandon Eyre

Brandon Eyre, legal counsel
Salary: $162,614
Job description: Responsible for providing legal services to the Board of Education and district administration. Supervises outside counsel doing the same. Communicate to appropriate staff any changes, updates, and recent interpretations of school and employment law. Conduct legal research and draft legal documents including contracts, policies, and correspondence. Supervises the district’s internal auditor.

Bio: Eyre came to Aurora in 2012 from Oregon where he was a partner at Baum, Smith and Eyre, LLC. Eyre’s practice focused primarily on municipal law and served clients throughout eastern Oregon. He represented public sector clients such as the La Grande School District, Union Baker Education Service District and the cities of Elgin, North Powder and Joseph, Oregon. Brandon earned his degrees from Brigham Young University.

Anthony Sturges, chief operations officer

Anthony Sturges

Salary: $182,497
Job description: Responsible for providing administrative and logistical direction and leadership to create and maintain safe, adaptable, and highly functional school and work environments. Serves as incident commander of the incident response team and is the district’s liaison to City of Aurora first responder groups including police and fire departments. Supervises the operational activities of athletics and activities, construction management and support, information technology, maintenance and operations, planning, security, transportation, and facility rental.

Bio: Sturges is a graduate of Hinkley High School in Aurora. He started working as a U.S. History and American Government teacher at Denver’s East High School in 1988 and came back to Aurora in 1993 to teach Honors U.S. History at Rangeview High School and then served as the Dean of Students at Aurora Central High School. From 1998 to 2002, he served as assistant principal for Thunder Ridge High School. In 2002, he became Aurora’s human resources director. Sturges has been in his current position since 2005.

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson, chief financial officer
Salary: $162,993
Job description: Responsible for advising the superintendent and school board on the financial and budget matters of the district. Also prepares and administers the district budget, guides the development of long-term capital financing methods, directs and supervises all business or finance functions including, but not limited to, risk management, budgeting, and grants management while adhering to district policies and procedures.

Bio: Johnson took over the district’s finance department in March 2017. Prior to working for the Aurora district, Johnson served as the director of the office of major project development for the Colorado Department of Transportation. At CDOT, he explored new methods to finance and procure major transportation projects. He has also worked as the deputy treasurer for Colorado and as the finance manager for the Governor’s Energy Office. During his time as deputy treasurer, Johnson focused on banking, investment, and accounting services. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from the University of Colorado.

New Leadership

New leader at Memphis state-run school ‘best candidate’ despite domestic assault conviction

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Westside Middle students will start the next school year under the new leadership of Rodney Peterson and Frayser Community Schools.

Seven years after a domestic assault charge took Rodney Peterson out of the running to lead a Memphis middle school, he is set to become the principal of that same school this fall as it enters a new chapter run by a charter network in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district.

Peterson officially takes the helm of Westside Achievement Middle School next year, according to leaders of Frayser Community Schools, which will take over operations of the school.

Bobby White, the CEO and founder of the charter organization, introduced Peterson on Thursday during a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.

“(Peterson) is the best candidate we had available to lead and operate this school,” White told Chalkbeat. “He has been in this city for six years now in different capacity and leadership roles, and is highly recommended.”

White said that a panel of eight Frayser community members selected Peterson as principal over three other finalists. White added that they had discussed Peterson’s past and determined he was ready to take lead as principal. 

PHOTO: Frayser Community Schools
Bobby White introduced Rodney Peterson during a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.

“He has had three leadership positions in the last six years since he left Boston,” White said. “No one has surfaced or talked about any of those things. This needed to be something [Peterson and community members] talked about. After their conversations, we were confident that this wasn’t something that would impact the role of leading this school.”

Peterson was offered the Westside job in 2012 but he withdrew his candidacy after the charges became public.

In 2011, Peterson was arrested and charged in Boston for assaulting his then-wife, Dee Griffin, a former Memphis news anchor. Peterson was then a school leader under Boston Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, a former Memphis City Schools superintendent. He resigned in 2012 from his Boston leadership position and served a one-year probation.

Johnson was criticized for not disciplining Peterson following the assault and later apologized. According to the Boston Globe, Johnson wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced Peterson, describing him as “among our most outstanding school leaders.” She gave him a reference when he first applied for principal of Westside in 2012. Johnson later launched an investigation into whether Peterson abused sick time policy while in Boston and revamped how the district handled criminal background checks.

I’ve dealt with the situation and moved on from it, and to respect everyone involved, that’s all that I’d like to say about it,” Peterson told Chalkbeat. “My biggest priority now is ensuring all of the families that I serve trust that I am committed to their child’s education and success. I’m excited to return back to Westside.”

He said he returned to Memphis to run his own business after leaving Boston. Peterson later was a dean at Westside Middle before becoming assistant principal at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, a charter school. He was most recently an assistant principal at the high school run by Frayser Community Schools.

Now, Peterson will take the helm at Westside as the school is once again in transition. The school has been run since 2012 directly by the Achievement School District, but will be operated by Frayser Community Schools beginning next school year. After the handoff, the school will remain under the oversight of the state-run district.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the turnaround district (no relation to Bobby White of Frayser Community Schools), said he was aware of the appointment and attended the Thursday meeting.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, could not confirm if district officials were aware of Peterson’s past charge. Charter operators are now required to notify the ASD if any employees had flags on their background checks after discovering last year that a Memphis interim principal at a different charter school had a federal felony conviction.

“Charter schools have discretion in who they hire, but we would expect that Achievement School District leadership would be involved if the charter operator was promoting an educator who had something of interest on a prior background check,” Gast said. “In this case, since this individual is a current school leader, we are checking with Frayser Community Schools to determine what process occurred.”

Frayser Community Schools was founded in 2014 by White, a former Memphis principal who started with one high school: Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the state-run district.

Since Westside was taken over by the state in 2013, the school has struggled with lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. Enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, and the school lost 18 percent of students just this school year.

The state-run district is looking to Frayser Community Schools to turn around the school in terms of safety, enrollment, and academics. White — who was the principal of Westside nine years ago — said he believed Peterson was right for the job.

“The community is 100 percent behind this decision,” White said. “I believe he can lead the school back to the prominence we once experienced.”

Peterson said he has built “extensive relationships” while at MLK Prep and is looking forward to bringing his experience to Westside.

“I am so thankful and excited to be able to continue to serve the kids and families in the community from which I grew up,” he said. “I have built some great relationships with many students and their families in the community, and I look forward to continuing that as we strive to help all the students of Westside Middle School achieve success.”