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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.

More money

Higher teacher pay and more school safety are up for a vote with November tax requests

Jefferson County educators Joel Zigman and Elizabeth Hall march during a teachers rally for more educational funding at the Colorado State Capitol on Thursday, April 26. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Seeing confidence in the economy, growing needs in schools, and strong public support for education, leaders of some large school districts will seek new taxes on November’s ballot.

At least seven districts, including those in Aurora, Jeffco, Douglas, Thompson and Westminster, have approved proposals asking voters to increase local revenues to pay for new safety measures and to raise teacher salaries.

The school board in Aurora placed a $35 million request on the ballot Tuesday, after a consultant hired to help evaluate the public mood said the country is generally very supportive of public education this year.

Voters statewide will also decide on an income tax plan to increase school funding for all Colorado districts. If approved, the new state funding would cover full-day kindergarten, but would be used otherwise at the discretion of each district.

Officials in school districts placing their own questions on the ballot either said they doubt the state measure will succeed or that they believe both are still necessary for their schools.

“It starts with our community first, and I think that’s what we have to recognize,” said Ryan McCoy, president of Westminster’s school board. “We can’t worry about what other school districts and their communities are thinking and wait to see what the state does as a whole.”

But board members in at least one district, in Montezuma, said they did worry that a local tax proposal in addition to the state’s request would be too much for voters.

Officials in the districts seeking local measures now will focus on helping voters understand the specific improvements their taxes would fund.

For instance, Jason Glass, superintendent of Jeffco schools, has laid out in blog posts the differences between what would be funded by the state measure and two district requests.

Jeffco school board members described the state measure as a necessary “long-term solution,” whereas the local proposals would address more immediate needs such as building repairs and safety improvements through mental health, counseling and school security.

Keith Frederick, the consultant who spoke to the Aurora school board this week, also asked voters about their interest in the specific items the district planned to pay for. Teacher pay, school safety and mental health measures “all scored extremely high,” he said.

At a public meeting for Jeffco on Thursday night, the board heard more than an hour of comments mostly from supportive teachers, parents and other community members. Teachers and other school staff shared stories about working multiple jobs to get by, and told the board their students “deserved better.”

Support for higher teacher pay has been mounting as teachers have walked out of schools this year in Colorado and across the country, demanding better school funding. The attention on mental health and safety measures has grown following a number of high-profile shootings in schools.

Like several of the districts going to voters, Jeffco has failed in past attempts to increase local taxes, most recently in 2016.

The Westminster school district has failed repeatedly to pass local tax hikes. Recognizing that, it is requesting only a $9.9 million mill levy override, less than in previous years.

“We could have gone for twice this amount, but we asked members of the community where their comfort was,” said Dino Valente, Westminster school board member. “Does this do everything we want to do? No it doesn’t, but it’s a start. It’s been over 20 years since we passed a mill levy override in our district and that’s quite frankly pathetic.”

Aurora’s school district has enjoyed voter support for previous tax measures. The mill levy override request proposed this year will be the largest request that has been made in that district.

Because of differences in the assessed value of their tax base, Aurora’s $35 million request, and Westminster’s $9.9 million request will have among the largest financial impacts on homeowners.

If Aurora’s measure is approved, homeowners will pay an additional $98.64 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value. If Westminster’s measure is approved, homeowners there will pay an additional $103 per year for every $100,000 of a home’s value.

Tax requests and their impact on homeowners per year

DISTRICT Request amount Tax impact, per $100,000 of home value
Westminster $9.9 million mill levy override $103
Aurora $35 million mill levy override $98.64
Thompson $149 million bond, $13.8 million mill levy override $84.35
Adams 12 $27 million mill levy override $77.76
Jeffco $567 million bond, $33 million mill levy override $46.92
Douglas $250 million bond, $40 million mill levy override $43.88
Pueblo 60 $6 million mill levy override $43.20

Mended Fences

Despite earlier attack ads, Colorado teachers union endorses Jared Polis for governor

Congressman Jared Polis meets with teachers, parents and students at the Academy of Urban Learning in Denver after announcing his gubernatorial campaign. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s largest teachers union has endorsed Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for governor.

The endorsement is not a surprise given that teachers unions have traditionally been associated with the Democratic Party. However, the 35,000-member Colorado Education Association had previously endorsed one of Polis’ rivals during the primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and contributed money toward negative ads that portrayed Polis as a supporter of vouchers based on a 2003 op-ed, in spite of votes in Congress against voucher programs.

With the primary in the past, CEA President Amie Baca-Oehlert focused on Polis’ support for more school funding, a priority shared by the union.

“Our members share Jared’s concern that too many communities don’t have the resources they need for every child to succeed,” Baca-Oehlert said in the press release announcing the endorsement. “We have created ‘haves and have-nots’ among our children, and nowhere is that more apparent than with our youngest students who don’t receive the same level of quality early childhood education. Jared impressed us with his strong commitment to give all kids a great start and better prepare them for a successful lifetime of learning.”

Polis has made expanding access to preschool and funding full-day kindergarten a key part of his education platform, along with raising pay for teachers.

Polis is running against Republican Walker Stapleton. As state treasurer, Stapleton advocated for changes to the public employee retirement system, including freezes on benefits and cost-of-living raises, that were opposed by the teachers union, something Baca-Oehlert made note of in the endorsement of Polis.

Read more about the two candidates’ education positions here.