Here We Go

Johnston launches gubernatorial bid with proposal for debt-free college, career training

Former State Sen. Michael Johnston announced his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston launched his gubernatorial bid Tuesday by saying Colorado’s future hinges on how the state meets the challenges of a changing economy, reimagines its schools and bridges cultural divides.

The Denver Democrat promised if he’s elected, Coloradans could earn up to two years of debt-free college or career training in exchange for community service.

“Today a high school degree won’t prepare you for the economy for the next 50 days,” Johnston said. “This means we must create a workforce that is as nimble as our rapidly changing world — where people can upgrade and change their skills over time to keep track of an economy that moves faster than ever.”

Johnston did not say how he planned to pay for the program, which he likened to the National Guard.

Johnston is a nationally recognized figure in the education reform movement.

During his time at the statehouse, he rewrote the state laws that govern how teachers are evaluated and fired. He pushed for and won in-state college tuition for students without legal status who graduated from a Colorado high schools. He also unsuccessfully campaigned for a $1 billion tax increase to fund the state’s schools.

Johnston is one of the state’s first Democrats to announce a bid to succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited. The open seat in 2018 race is expected to attract all-stars from both political parties.

While Johnston has attracted national media attention in the past, his name recognition in Colorado is lower than that of other politicians considering a run, such as former Interior Secretary and U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar or Congressman Ed Perlmutter.

His early announcement, less than three months after the last election, will allow him to get a leg up in fundraising. It will also give him time to reach Colorado voters who aren’t familiar with his track record — especially unaffiliated voters who in 2018 likely will be allowed to vote in the state’s first open primary.

Johnston is a Vail native. His family still owns a lodge in Eagle County where he worked during his childhood cleaning toilets and folding laundry.

In his speech, Johnston  spoke about bridging the gap between the state’s urban and rural communities, as well as Republicans and Democrats. But he criticized campaign themes of president-elect Donald Trump — whose campaign resonated with rural voters — including Trump’s call to deport undocumented immigrants and repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

“We will refuse to stand by to watch hard-working chemistry majors be deported because of the country in which they were born,” he said. “We will refuse to stand by and watch teachers who lead children who need them more than ever be deported for the country in which they were born. We will refuse to stand by and watch 400,000 Coloradans lose their health care.”

Throughout his speech he said “bold leadership” was needed to create a new economy, school system and energy sector.

Johnston’s speech was peppered with references to his role in shaping the state’s education reform movement. But he also touted his work on a rural economic package and criminal justice reform.

His school reform efforts in the past have been met with mixed results, and are likely to be a large hurdle to Johnston in the primary.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston’s children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid.

The state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association, plays a large role in Democratic politics and has often opposed Johnston’s legislation. The union never endorsed Johnston during his state Senate campaigns.

“Our next governor will play an enormous role in school funding, state assessment, educator evaluations and many other areas critical to educators and the success of our students,” Kerrie Dallman, the union’s president, said in an email. “We need to hear from all of the candidates on their ideas to provide our students with the schools they deserve and look forward to having these conversations with every person running for our state’s highest office.”

Johnston’s campaign could be fueled in part by the deep pockets that have funded the nation’s education reform movement.

Whitney Tilson, a New York hedge fund manager and one of the founders of political nonprofit Democrats for Education Reform, in a December email newsletter called Johnston an “ed warrior and general star” and would need the support of education reform community to win.

Johnston’s bipartisan work on rural issues and criminal justice reform should bode well for him in the state’s new open primary system, said Curtis Hubbard, a political consultant for Onsight Public Affairs.

“My advice to anyone running would be ignore the unaffiliated votes at your peril,” Hubbard said.

After graduating from Yale, the Vail native got his start in education policy by joining Teach For America, a nonprofit that recruits college graduates to teach in some of the nation’s poorest schools. He went on to become a high school principal in the Mapleton School District in Adams County. And he was an education adviser for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Johnston was first appointed to the state legislature to represent northeast Denver in 2009.

After Tuesday’s announcement, Johnston set off on a two-day tour of the state with stops in Pueblo, Durango and Costilla County.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.