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.