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Colorado gubernatorial hopeful Mike Johnston, known as an education reformer, says what schools really need is money

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

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, known as an architect of the state’s most sweeping education reforms, says that what Colorado’s schools really need is money.

Now a Democratic candidate for governor, Johnston released an education platform this week that hinges on a major tax reform and calls for free full-day kindergarten, more access to preschool, and higher pay for teachers, as well as two years of higher education or career training, debt-free, in exchange for community service.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, he said the unifying theme is equity, “from the youngest kids to the 55-year-olds who have only known being a coal miner for three generations.”

A former teacher and principal, Johnston was the author of Colorado’s still controversial teacher effectiveness law and a key figure in the passage of the READ Act, which created a new system to identify students in kindergarten through third grade with reading disabilities. He also found bipartisan support to pass the ASSET bill, which provided in-state tuition for students who were born in another country.

He’s drawn support from backers of education reform. One of his opponents, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy, received the endorsement of the teachers union.  

Johnston said Colorado has the right legal framework for school accountability and student achievement, but schools need more money to adopt necessary changes – and the entire educational system needs to be revamped to stretch from preschool programs to continuing education for adults throughout their working lives.

Top of the list for Johnston: a major change to Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to allow the state to keep more money generated by existing taxes. With that extra revenue, he would provide more money to schools to pay for full-day kindergarten and increase teacher pay.

“We’re now at the place where we’ve built the right implementation framework, and now we need to give schools and teachers the resources to implement it,” Johnston said.

Whether it’s reading specialists to help second graders meet literacy targets or school counselors to help depressed teenagers get the right treatment, Colorado schools need more resources to help their students meet higher academic standards and be successful in life, Johnston said. They also need more money to raise teacher pay and attract and keep talented educators.

Johnston thinks there is momentum in Colorado to change a key provision of TABOR – with the right leadership and in the right year. TABOR requires that voters approve any tax increase and puts tight caps on how much revenue the state can collect each year. If the economy is doing well and existing taxes generate too much money, the state has to refund money to voters. Johnston wants to ask voters to let the state keep that extra revenue instead, something most school districts and many cities have already done successfully.

An important lesson from Amendment 66, Johnston’s unsuccessful effort to get voters to approve a major tax increase for education, is to not pursue changes to fiscal policy in an off-year election, he said. Turnout is low, and the voters who do show up are among the most conservative.

“The wave election of this generation will be 2020,” Johnston said.

He hopes at that point to be a popular new governor stumping for TABOR reform in every county, with a bipartisan coalition behind him.

And why does Colorado need more money for education? Why aren’t the billions the state already spends enough?

“We are the most efficient education spending state in the country,” Johnston said. “There is no state that outperforms us that spends less. The only states that outperform us are states that spend two or three times what we do. I think we’ve closed the gap as much as we can with existing resources.

“Right now, there are key investments we are not moving the needle on, from full-day kindergarten to getting students that are high needs into quality preschool.”

Johnston’s platform calls for:

  • Making sure every student has access to free full-day kindergarten
  • Eliminating preschool waitlists
  • Increasing teacher pay
  • Creating loan forgiveness and homeownership assistance programs for teachers in hard-to-serve urban and rural communities
  • Expanding leadership opportunities for teachers
  • Making higher education more accessible by offering two free years of college to people who do community service
  • Expanding career and technical education, including apprenticeship programs
  • Making sure every child learns computer science
  • Expanding high-quality summer and after school programs for low-income children

Johnston said equity was his main concern as he crafted his platform,

You can read the entire thing here.

Read more about Cary Kennedy’s education platform here.

Read more about Jared Polis’ education platform 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.

Pushback

National head of DFER after Colorado Democrats’ platform vote: ‘We’re not going anywhere’

PHOTO: Newark Trust
DFER President Shavar Jeffries

The national head of Democrats for Education Reform responded to the dramatic rejection of his organization at the Colorado Democratic Party state assembly with a simple message: We’re not going anywhere.

In an email to supporters that he also posted on Medium Thursday, Shavar Jeffries laid out his credentials as a Democrat and said disagreements over education policy should remain a “family fight.”

“We understand that on some issues, some in our party disagree with us,” Jeffries wrote. “We welcome that disagreement, and we welcome the debates that ensue periodically. We stay true to our principles because we believe our vision best reflects the values of the party and the outcomes we seek for young people.

“But we will fight  –  when fights are necessary  –  anchored in the understanding that this is a family fight and thus we will not engage in the politics of personal destruction against those with whom we disagree.”

Jeffries went on to blame the election of President Donald Trump on an unwillingness among Democrats to set aside their differences.

“Trump is president to a large degree because progressives and liberals engaged in a civil war over the 10 percent of policies where we might disagree, as opposed to uniting around the 90 percent where we agree,” Jeffries wrote. “Hillary Clinton was booed at the DNC convention in 2016 by the same forces that still seek to sow division within our party. Our unity is our best weapon against the ongoing assault to our democracy visited upon the country each day by Trump.”

Jennifer Walmer, the head of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, was booed down by delegates at Saturday’s assembly. Those delegates went on to adopt into the official party platform a call for DFER to stop using “Democrats” in its name.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, who has the backing of the teachers unions, won 62 percent of the vote at the party assembly. The platform vote happened later in the day, after some of the more than 3,000 delegates had left.

It’s not clear how the platform provision could be enforced. Some members want the party to send a cease-and-desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform, something the Los Angeles Democratic Party tried in 2012, with no apparent effect.

The Colorado vote drew cheers and jeers locally and around the country. In New York City, one blog called it a “ray of sunshine” that could signal cracks in support for reform policies. Meanwhile, conservatives used the vote to cast Democrats as extremists. The editorial board of the Colorado Springs Gazette said it represented “a far-left shift in the Democratic Party.”

Education reform has become an increasingly divisive issue within the Democratic Party. Since the 2016 presidential election, opponents of a suite of reform policies, like charter schools and test-based teacher accountability laws, have increasingly sought to tie Democratic proponents of these policies to the unpopular president and his education secretary.

Jeffries said his organization would not be dissuaded by those tactics.

“If our intra-party opponents would prefer counter-productive family warfare as opposed to unity around shared values, this should be clear too: We stand with the millions of families across our country demanding access to high-quality public schools and the thousands of elected Democrats who fight tirelessly to ensure they get it,” he said. “We are not going anywhere.”

You can read Jeffries’ entire statement here.

All in a Name

Colorado Democrats overwhelmingly reject Democrats for Education Reform at state assembly

More than 3,400 delegates gathered in the First Bank Center in Broomfield Saturday for the Democratic state assembly. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Delegates at the Colorado Democratic state assembly Saturday sent a clear message to the state chapter of Democrats for Education Reform: You don’t have a place in our party.

After booing down the head of the education reform organization, who described herself as a lifelong Democrat, delegates voted overwhelmingly Saturday to call for the organization to no longer use “Democrats” in its name. While it’s unclear how that would be enforced, the vote means a rejection of DFER is now part of the Colorado Democratic Party platform.

The one-sided platform fight revealed a growing divide among party activists and establishment politicians on education policy that could have implications for the governor’s race. Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer who has the backing of the teachers unions, got 62 percent of the vote at the assembly, easily securing a place on the ballot alongside U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who got 33 percent of the vote.

The advisory committee of the Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform reads like a “who’s who” of prominent party members and includes former speaker of the state House Mark Ferrandino, who now works for Denver Public Schools, and former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate and the author of several key education reform bills in Colorado.

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Johnston was not at the state assembly Saturday because he used signed petitions to secure his place on the primary ballot. Candidates in Colorado can get on the ballot either by collecting signatures or by going through the caucus and assembly process. A spokeswoman said Johnston was busy campaigning and did not have a comment on the platform vote.

The platform amendment reads: “We oppose making Colorado’s public schools private or run by private corporations or becoming segregated again through lobbying and campaigning efforts of the organization called Democrats for Education Reform and demand that they immediately stop using the party’s name Democrat in their name.”

DFER Colorado State Director Jennifer Walmer was clearly emotional as she defended her organizational and personal commitment to the Democratic Party. She was booed throughout her remarks and stopped speaking at one point to ask to be allowed to continue.

“My father used to have precinct caucuses in my home,” she said. “I’ve canvassed for Democrats my entire life. I have only ever supported Democrats. My board, which is a board of elected Democrats, we are simply focused on the idea that every child deserves access to a high-quality education. We are adamantly opposed to the Trump and DeVos privatization.”

Vanessa Quintana, a political activist who was the formal sponsor of the minority report, was a student at Denver’s Manual High School when it was closed in 2006, a decision that Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, then Denver’s superintendent, defended at an education panel Friday.

She said that before she finally graduated from high school, she had been through two school closures and a major school restructuring and dropped out of school twice. Three of her siblings never graduated, and she blames the instability of repeated school changes.

“When DFER claims they empower and uplift the voices of communities, DFER really means they silence the voices of displaced students like myself by uprooting community through school closure,” she told the delegates. “When Manual shut down my freshman year, it told me education reformers didn’t find me worthy of a school.”

Just two people spoke up for Democrats for Education Reform. A charter school teacher, who was also booed, said she found the conversation “confusing” and that the educators she works with care deeply about equity. Charter schools in Colorado are authorized by either local districts or the state and receive public money, though they’re run by their own boards.

Another speaker declined to defend education reform itself but said that this shouldn’t be a litmus test issue for Democrats. Identifying himself as a gay man, he compared shunning education reformers to the Republican Party shunning gay members of their party.

After the vote, Walmer said she was concerned about the state of the party and its ability to unite against common opponents, but also that she doesn’t think the vote on the floor of the assembly represents regular party members. More than 3,400 delegates gathered in the First Bank Center in Broomfield Saturday for the state assembly, but only a portion of those were left for the platform debate, which occurred after delegates voted on statewide offices like governor, treasurer, and attorney general.

“I don’t think I have ever had a darker day as a Democrat because that is not my party,” she said. “They booed a gay man. They booed a teacher because they don’t teach in the right kind of school. … I work with people who have dedicated their lives to inclusion and equity and pushing back on the hateful rhetoric of (President Donald) Trump and (Education Secretary Betsy) DeVos, and I just saw that same hateful rhetoric in my own party. It was a horrible display of unity.”

In an interview, Quintana said she sees education reform policies as promoting inequality, and she wants to change a status quo in which reformers are well represented in the party establishment. She feels especially strongly about ending school closure and sees school choice as a way to avoid improving every school.

“Families wouldn’t need a choice if every neighborhood had a quality school,” she said. “There should be no need to choice into a new neighborhood.”

She believes the reform agenda is not compatible with the education platform of the party, which reads, in part, “our state public education laws and policies should provide every student with an equal opportunity to reach their potential.”

This is not the first time Trump and DeVos have been deployed in intra-party fights over education policy in Colorado. In the most recent Denver Public Schools board race, their faces appeared on a campaign mailer attacking Angela Cobián, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who supports the general direction of the district’s reform policies. Cobián prevailed over her union-backed opponent.

Back in November, a group of party members that included state Sens. Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs and Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village and state Rep. Joe Salazar, a Thornton Democrat running for attorney general, as well as activists generally associated with the union side of education debates, sent a letter to party chairwoman Morgan Carroll asking that she send a cease and desist letter to Democrats for Education Reform.

The organization responded with its own letter that lays out its legal case for using the name. They’re not using the official party name, and its members are, in fact, Democrats. Walmer said the education policies that DFER supports are the same ones supported by former President Barack Obama.

No action has been taken on this matter so far, and a spokesman for the party wasn’t able to say Saturday what the impact of the platform vote would be. Walmer said she wasn’t worried about being any legal implications “because there are none.”

The change to the party platform passed out of the Denver County assembly last month, but was not initially included in the state platform. Instead it was presented as a minority report at the assembly. DFER sent a letter to delegates asking them not to support it, but did not prevail.

Van Schoales, a DFER board member and CEO of A Plus Colorado, an education reform advocacy group, called it a “symbolic attack,” but he believes support for policies like school choice and charter schools remains strong among Democratic elected officials.

“I don’t think there is as much of a division as people make it out to be,” he said.

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