Follow the money

Network of education reformers continue to help shape governor’s race in Colorado

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston's children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Education-oriented donors continued to play an outsized role in the latest fundraising round of a governor’s race where all leading Democratic candidates have strong connections to Colorado schools.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat and a national figure in the education reform community, added another $301,000 to his campaign between April 1 and June 30, new records show. More than $200,000 came from outside of Colorado.

National donors included Reed Hastings, co-founder of Netflix and a charter school supporter, and Michelle Yee, an education researcher and wife of the co-founder of LinkedIn. Both have a history of giving to education reform candidates and causes in Colorado.

Locally, civic leader and megadonor Daniel Ritchie also gave to Johnston.

Johnston, who grew his war chest substantially in the last round by tapping his wide network of supporters across the country, has raised nearly $1 million since January.

But the Democrat who raised the most during the last quarter, according to reports filed Monday, was Cary Kennedy, the author of a 2000 state constitutional amendment mandating that Colorado annually increase spending on schools.

Kennedy, a former state treasurer, raised nearly $340,000 between April 1 and June 30. This puts her in a much stronger position to compete than some insiders originally thought.

Johnston’s continued nationwide support and Kennedy’s early fundraising success faced strong competition from the personal wealth of U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, a multi-millionaire who has helped start charter schools and once chaired the State Board of Education.

He reported $274,155 in donations, including $250,000 that he donated to himself.

Colorado has strict limits on campaign donations, which favor wealthy individuals who can self-fund a campaign.

The competitive race has already seen one dropout, U.S. Congressman Ed Perlmutter. The Jefferson County Democrat was the supposed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. But he dropped out of the race earlier this month.

Noel Ginsburg, a Denver businessman who leads a nonprofit focused on apprenticeships, reported $92,792 in new contributions.

Political observers predict the race to succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, will be the most expensive in history. And with unaffiliated voters making up a third of the state’s electorate, both parties see paths to claim the governor’s mansion.

The Republican field is still forming but so far features District Attorney George Brauchler, former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell, and former presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s nephew Doug Robinson.

Robinson raised the most during the fundraising quarter: $207,532. Brauchler reported raising $183,398. And Mitchell raised a little more than $15,000.

But Mitchell has more cash on hand than any other candidate — Democrat or Republican — after loaning his campaign $3 million.

Each Republican candidate has named education as a top issue. However, the Republicans have less pronounced ties to the state’s public schools.

Rival Vision

Gubernatorial candidate Noel Ginsburg wants to do away with Colorado’s educator effectiveness law

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If elected governor, businessman Noel Ginsburg says he would work to expand apprenticeship programs, raise teacher salaries, send more money to schools – and repeal a signature legislative achievement of one of his Democratic primary rivals.

Ginsburg, who is running for elected office for the first time, currently runs CareerWise Colorado, an apprenticeship program that Gov. John Hickenlooper considers one of the chief accomplishments of his administration.

In its second year, it’s still a long way from reaching its goal of serving 20,000 students statewide. Ginsburg is also the founder and CEO of Intertech Plastics, a company that does custom injection molding, and the co-founder, with his wife Leslie, of the I Have A Dream Foundation, which works to increase the state’s high school graduation rate.

Ginsburg released an education platform this week that calls for putting a lot more money into education and giving teachers more of a voice in policy decisions. Teachers unions have already endorsed former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy.

Ginsburg told Chalkbeat he wouldn’t have minded getting their endorsement, but he understands that as a newcomer to politics, he needs to work hard to “claw my way to viability.”

“The teachers union, whether they support me or not, they will be my partners,” he said. “I don’t believe the unions have all the answers, but boy, do they deserve a seat at the table.”

Ginsburg’s education platform calls for:

  • Expanding high-quality apprenticeship programs
  • Filling the skills gap so that more students graduate into good-paying jobs
  • Convincing voters to approve changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to let the state keep more money
  • Convincing voters to approve tax increases for education
  • Restoring trust in government when it comes to education
  • Improving teacher pay
  • Repealing 2010 legislation that requires teachers to demonstrate effectiveness and ties teacher pay to student performance

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, now a Democratic candidate for governor, was the author of that legislation, Senate Bill 191. A former teacher and school principal, Johnston stood behind the law in a 2016 Chalkbeat interview.

But Ginsburg said that in his view, the law had been used as a “club” against teachers and students.

“You need those measurements, but if you are measured by the measures in 191, you are measured by a system that is flawed,” he said. “It was well-intentioned at the time, but I don’t think it’s met the objectives.”

Kennedy’s education plan does not call for the abolition of Senate Bill 191, but supports giving more weight to teachers’ “perspectives and expertise” in evaluations.

Ginsburg has criticized other candidates in the Democratic primary for making promises that will be hard to deliver, particularly around education. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis wants to provide universal access to preschool, and Johnston wants to provide debt-free college in exchange for community service. Ginsburg said he would love to see both those things, but first the state needs to adequately fund the existing K-12 education system.

To do that, Ginsburg says he would lead a coalition to reform TABOR so that Coloradans keep the ability to vote on tax increases but the state gets to keep more of the money generated by a booming economy.

TABOR reform – a premise on which Kennedy’s education platform also depends – might seem just as unlikely if you look at Colorado history. But Ginsburg said he believes that with the right leadership, voters can be persuaded.

Ginsburg also is pledging to lead a campaign for a tax increase to fund education. Colorado voters have twice before rejected such measures, and a coalition of state and local school leaders want to put a tax increase for education on the ballot again this year. Ginsburg said he supports the general idea, but he’s not sure it’s the right proposal.

TABOR reform and tax increases for education don’t seem unrealistic or undoable to Ginsburg.

“If we cannot raise more dollars for education, it would ultimately leave me speechless,” he said. “We can either say we’re not going to make the investment, and we’re okay with declining opportunity for our students or … I cannot fathom a continuation of the current trends because I think it leads to a Colorado none of us can be proud of.”

Ginsburg sees apprenticeships as key to addressing income inequality and preserving the middle class.

Ginsburg said that as governor, he would use his “bully pulpit” to get more businesses involved in apprenticeship programs and to explain the value of these programs to students. He stressed that CareerWise largely does not depend on taxpayer dollars, nor is it a substitute for a four-year college degree for those who want to pursue one. CareerWise apprenticeships allow students to earn money and college credit as they learn work skills.

He described business and industry as missing players in the education world. Teachers are doing their job, he said, but they can’t possibly show students every way that math, science, reading, and writing will be applied in the work world.

“We put all the burden on K-12 and act as the consumer of the final product, and that’s not right,” he said. “We can share the burden.”

Read more about Cary Kennedy’s education platform here.

Read more about Jared Polis’ plan for universal preschool here.

Read about Mike Johnston’s plan for free college in exchange for community service here.

And read our take-aways from the first gubernatorial forum with an education focus here.

Next Generation

Here’s why advocates want Colorado students to ask the questions at a candidate forum on mental health

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post

When seven candidates for governor take the stage at a Denver forum on mental health next month, they’ll answer questions from Colorado residents who may still have braces and learner’s permits.

Students, that is.

Leaders of Mental Health Colorado, the advocacy group organizing the candidate forum on March 23, say they’re soliciting student questions because many young people already understand the impact of mental health problems.

“Kids are in some ways the best champions because they’re the closest to this issue,” said Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. “Even if they’re not old enough to vote, they’re old enough to have a say.”

Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation and several school districts in the state have grappled with multiple student suicides in recent years.

Mental Health Colorado is asking middle school, high school, and college students to submit questions in advance of the event. The lunchtime forum will also feature some questions from adults.

Romanoff said the recent high school shooting in Florida by a 19-year-old with a long history of disturbing behavior has raised awareness about mental health issues, but doesn’t provide an accurate picture of how people coping with mental health problems behave.

“Most people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, they’re more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator,” he said.

There are “a lot of folks now saying we have to do something about mental health, and we welcome their support,” he said. “I don’t want to suggest that that alone will solve the nation’s gun violence crisis.”

So far, the gubernatorial candidates who have committed to attending the forum include Democrats Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg, and Erik Underwood, and Republicans Victor Mitchell, Cynthia Coffman, Lew Gaiter and Stephen Barlock.

To submit questions for the candidates, students can email deargovernor@mentalhealthcolorado.org. The deadline for submissions is March 19. For more information about the forum, visit the event page.