Exit interview

State Sen. Michael Johnston reflects on six years of education reform as term ends

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston with his children on the Senate floor at the start of the 2012 session.

When Colorado lawmakers come together on Jan. 11, one of the most influential — and controversial — legislators to work on education policy this decade won’t be there.

State Sen. Michael Johnston, a Democrat who was first appointed to represent northeast Denver in 2009, is term-limited and won’t be back. He is, however, considering a bid to run for governor.

Before everyone begins focusing on the next legislative session (and the 2018 governor’s race), we sat down with Johnston to discuss his work on teacher evaluations, school funding, the future of the reform movement and why some people consider him the enemy.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You ran your landmark bill that fundamentally changed the way teachers were evaluated and dismissed, Senate Bill 191, your first year in the legislature. Why was that your No. 1 priority? Were you afraid of losing any political capital?

I had been a teacher. I lived through the world of having evaluations that were meaningless and I couldn’t improve my practice. And I came into the legislature straight out of being a high school principal for six years. I felt I had the chance to learn a lot about what was working and what wasn’t working.

Evaluations felt sort of like health care — everyone knows the system is broken, but they didn’t agree on how to fix it. It seemed like the purpose of serving in the legislature was to get big things done. And that was more important than preserving political capital.

There are many facets to 191. One portion of the bill actually had its day in front of the state Supreme Court last week. What’s working with the law and what isn’t?

The thing we always knew would take time would be developing the culture of gathering and evaluating student data. We left a lot of flexibility for districts to do that. We figured some districts would be really innovative and find better ways than others would.

So unlike other states that mandated tethering data to a single test, we gave more flexibility about what test could be used.

One thing I’m convinced that is not working is schools that are using one single indicator for all teachers’ growth measures. So if they’re just using a fifth-grade English score to drive the growth metrics of a third-grade art teacher or an eighth-grade science teacher — that to me is not in the spirit of the bill.

It’s supposed to be about improvement and to improve it has to be about your own performance. So I’m more encouraged by the districts who are working with their teachers to find a way to measure growth in art in third grade and science in eighth grade.

Amy Erickson, policy director of the Senate majority office, left, listens to remarks with Sen. Mike Johnston, right, and his wife Courtney during an Amendment 66 watch party at the Marriott City Center in Denver on Nov. 5. Amendment 66 was defeated. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)

Do you still believe a teacher’s evaluation should be based on how well students perform, even as some supporters of that idea have backed off?

I do. I think the notion that you can separate the success of adults from the success of kids — I don’t find that to be meaningful to the educators I know who are interested in making an impact.

Now, are there nuances of how you measure that? It’s as much art as it is science. Do I believe one score on one day is ever the picture of a student’s performance? No. But what teachers have done for generations, at the end of every semester, they give a student a grade that is the result of a complex analysis of a combination of skills and performance and demonstration of those skills.

There’s a similar complexity we want to gather about teachers. I think there is lots of work to do on how to fine-tune that, but I think that basic principle is as important today as it was then.

Talk to me about Amendment 66, which would have raised about a billion dollars in taxes for schools. Was that the biggest setback in your career?

I think so. Certainly, biggest failure. I have a lot of wise friends who say you learn more from your failures than your successes. That was certainly true.

What did you learn?

There is a reason we haven’t passed a statewide tax increase during the last 25 years of the TABOR era. People are very, very skeptical of taxes in a general application. And people are very, very skeptical of statewide taxes.

What does SB 191 do?
Senate Bill 191 rewrote many of the state’s laws regarding teacher evaluations, and hiring and firing practices. Here’s a look at some of what’s in SB 191.
  • Requires annual evaluations for teachers and administrators to “provide a basis for making decisions in the areas of hiring, compensation, promotion, assignment, professional development, earning and retaining non-probationary status, dismissal, and nonrenewal of contract.”
  • At least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation must be based on the academic growth of students, and at least 50 percent of a principal’s evaluation is to be determined by the academic growth of students in a school and the effectiveness of the school’s teachers.
  • Probationary teachers must have three consecutive years of demonstrated effectiveness to gain non-probationary status and non-probationary teachers who receive two consecutive years of unsatisfactory evaluations return to probation.
  • A teacher may be placed in a school only with the consent of the principal and the advice of at least two teachers who work at that school.
  • Effective non-probationary teachers who aren’t placed in a school will go into a priority hiring pool.
  • Non-probationary teachers who lose their jobs because of staff reductions will be given lists of all available jobs in their districts.
  • A non-probationary teacher who doesn’t find another job within 12 months or two hiring cycles will be placed on unpaid leave.
  • Teacher effectiveness, then seniority, will be considered when layoffs are made.

A person who I considered a friend was the statewide voice opposing Amendment 66 and was also the proponent of his own local district’s bond and mill levy override. So there are folks who you could get to support local districts but are much more skeptical about a statewide measure. The challenge is if you only allow a patchwork of local measures, you’re going to expand inequality across the state with places like Greeley and Pueblo that have never passed an override.

You need a really broad coalition if you’re going to do something that has never been done before — pass a large tax measure in this state. We lost the chambers (of commerce), and we lost the business community. I thought we could have won without the deep backing of that community. We were wrong about that.

I also thought one of the mistakes we made was that we were not clear about what was at stake. I think what we did was spend two years on a very complicated problem of school finance and the way it’s not equitable and inadequate, and — I’ll take responsibility for this — we didn’t think we could communicate that effectively in 15-second TV spots. So we tried to simplify the message down to the emotional resonance of what school felt like — art and P.E. and small class sizes. That was a mistake.

We need to engage people in a deep conversation around the fact that there are profound inequalities and inadequacies in the way schools are funded.

Another failure of Amendment 66 is that we didn’t just lose the vote count. It was that we didn’t use that opportunity to build a movement for further remedies of the same problem. People just saw it as the schools asked for more money. I think we failed to create the understanding of the problem, which would have kept people at the table to help solve the problem a different way.

I do think the upside is we did exactly what the Constitution asked us to do. We didn’t skirt TABOR. We didn’t play dirty tricks.

The other thing I learned is that when you’re defeated, you pick yourself back up. And that’s what we did. The next session, we came back and passed the Student Succeeds Act, which was, as far as I can tell, the single largest one-time investment in Colorado’s history. We put $400 million back into K-12. We put in one of the key improvements of the system, which was this financial transparency component. We looked for innovative ways to do what we wanted to for preschool and full-day kindergarten, which was the Pay-For-Success legislation. It will allow us to finance early ed in a different way.

People said, on some of these things, we don’t want to pay new taxes. So we went back and found ways under the current budget to find new revenue for schools and found new ways to find expansions of existing programs, like early childhood education, without adding new taxes.

Do you think there can be comprehensive school finance reform passed in the legislature without new taxes?

I think Amendment 66 (and it’s companion legislation Senate Bill 213) proved is that it’s going to be very hard to solve the problems of school funding equity with solving the problems of school funding adequacy. The reason why Amendment 66 got so expensive is because it tried to do both at the same time. I’m skeptical we can solve one of those problems without the other. And I’d hate to solve adequacy without solving equity.

The state enacted many education reform efforts between 2008 and 2012. And then, momentum behind the movement appeared to hit a roadblock. Some might say there was a pushback that led to the testing debate of 2015. What happened?

For me, it was very deliberate. It was always the conversation: Let’s build the system and then let’s adequately fund the system. So, I spent my first three years, which included the READ Act and the ASSET bill, making dramatic improvements up and down the system.

Gov. John Hickenlooper shakes hands with Sen. Mike Johnston after signing SB 13-213.

(The READ Act created a new system to identify students in kindergarten through third grade with reading disabilities. The ASSET bill provided in-state tuition for students who were born in another country but brought to the U.S. illegally as a student and graduated from a Colorado high school.)

We thought it would rebuild the public’s faith that the system should be funded more adequately. So the next phase of the work was funding, which was Senate Bill 213, Amendment 66 and the Student Success Act. Then, as I went around the state and talked to educators, they would say, “We believe this is the right work. But we also believe it’s incredibly complicated. We’re willing to be engaged and solve this. But you need to leave us alone for awhile for us to do that.”

So when people came to me in 2014 and 2015 and 2016 and they ask me what my next big crazy education idea is, I would say the idea is to help support educators in the big ideas we already have.

If you take any other profession and change the entire bulk of what you do, how you measure what you do and how you’re evaluated on what you do, all that the same time, that’s a huge overhaul.

Was it too much?

I don’t think so. There were a lot of unsung heroes in this work — like state Sen. Bob Bacon, who said, “We believe this is is the right thing to do. But let’s not pretend like we can do this in one year. Let’s give ourselves five years to implement.” Which is why this work has been gradual — and why I think it’s been more successful here than in some states.

In 2015, lawmakers took on the state’s testing system. While many of your peers were eager to cut testing, you were a staunch defender of the system. At times, it seemed like you might have been the only one standing up for testing. Did you ever feel lonely?

No. Some of the groups who came in to say, “Don’t throw this all out” were teachers. I think of the social studies test debate. Everyone said, ‘We don’t need this test.’ Then a bunch of social studies teachers showed up and said “Wait a second.” If you remember, that’s why a bill that looked like it was going to breeze through suddenly died at the Senate Ed committee. Teachers showed up en masse.

I had done a lot of traveling through the state to sit with third grade and second grade teachers during assessments. I believed they were right that there was a lot of duplicative assessments that needed to be streamlined. So I was supportive of the fact that we reduced testing by more than any of the other 49 states that year. I was glad to vote for it. I was also glad that we maintained some spine of data so we could track growth year to year.

That was a good example of how when good people are willing to work together and sit in the same room over and over and over, you get good outcomes.

Unfinished business?

There’s a lot.

PHOTO: Denver Post File
State Sen. Michael Johnston

Early childhood education is a huge piece of unfinished business. College access and affordability is a huge part of unfinished business. And I think all of the implementation that’s going to go around to perfect the system we’re trying to build is going to need a lot of time and resources.

What do you think distinguishes education reform in Colorado compared to the rest of the country?

I think we are distinctly more collaborative and thoughtful. I think we’re more patient. And I think we have a broader coalition of people who support us that goes well beyond the Capitol. It includes nonprofit leaders and civil right leaders and business leaders, people who have been engaged in this work for a long, long time. We’ve tried as much as possible to avoid it being a conversation of blame and more about improvement. I think there is just a tenor of how the conversation has gone.

Look, Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers) supported 191. She’s one of the most vocal union leaders in the country. But we talked to them early, we solved problems with them. They felt this was work they wanted to be a part of and work they could support. Other parts of the country, they found evaluations very hard. Here, the purpose was different. The work was lead by practitioners. We included practitioners in all the conversations. There were 205 amendments proposed to 191. Almost everyone I took was from an educator who walked through door was from an educator who said I had missed something important.

I think that’s made it very different.

How do you hope to shape the education debate from outside of the Capitol?

There’s a great new generation of leaders coming into the Capitol. I’ll be an ear or a sounding board for them as they get up and situated. I do find there are real upsides to term limits. You get more turnover in leadership and new ideas. The downside is you lose institutional memory. This year, there will be a very small number of people in either chamber who were there when we approved 191. So those new lawmakers weren’t there for the 300 people who spoke about why this bill mattered.

I want to be a resource, not just for 191, but for the much broader vision: early childhood education, attracting and retaining great teachers, making sure kids have access to any opportunity they want. It’s about situating individual parts of the debate into the bigger vision. I find when people see the bigger vision, they’re more supportive or more helpful with their feedback.

You’re a very polarizing figure. Why do you think that is?

I find I’m far less polarizing to people who know me. I think people who know me and work with me on a daily basis have a clearer sense for what my values are and that I’m going to try to get things done in a way that is respectful to everyone involved. If you talk with teachers I’ve worked with, even the folks who have come to oppose legislation I’ve been a part of, I’ve sat down with anyone who came to my door. And the more we did, the more we agreed than disagreed. I think there are people who spend a lot of time and effort trying to make a boogeyman. But people who sit down and work with me don’t have that perception. And it’s true in other policy areas. The ACLU disagreed with my work on felony DUIs. We sat down and reached a consensus. They didn’t love the idea, but they realized it was important. I was both respected and committed at the same time. But I also think I listened. I found that at close range, I’m much less of either pole.

the one to watch

Inside the three-candidate battle for northeast Denver’s school board seat

File photo of student at Marrama Elementary School in northeast Denver. (The Denver Post)

Of the Denver school board races on the November ballot, none packs more intrigue than the fight for District 4.

The three-person slate of candidates features an appointed incumbent who’s never run for office and supports the district’s current path, an outspoken recent high school graduate who sharply disagrees, and a former charter school educator with a more nuanced view and — in what on its surface may seem surprising — the endorsement of the teachers union.

The seat represents a large swath of northeast Denver with a wide range of income levels, including areas that are gentrifying quickly and others that have been home to some of the district’s most aggressive school improvement strategies.

The Nov. 7 election is high stakes. Four of the seven seats on the Denver school board are up for grabs. If candidates who disagree with Denver Public Schools’ direction win all four races, they’ll have the political power to change key policies in the state’s largest school district and one nationally recognized for its embrace of school choice and autonomy.

Tay Anderson is one of those candidates. The 19-year-old graduated from Denver’s Manual High School last year and is now a student at Metropolitan State University. On the campaign trail, he has doggedly criticized the district for what he describes as weak community engagement efforts and a move to “privatize” public education by approving more charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run (in Denver, by nonprofit operators).

He also has led the charge in attempting to tie the current school board and the incumbent candidates to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose stance on school choice — and especially private school vouchers, which DPS does not support — have made her a controversial figure.

    This is the first of a series of articles profiling this year’s Denver school board races. You can read about where candidates in all the DPS races stand on issues here, in Chalkbeat’s candidate questionnaire. Check out our coverage of the campaign’s first campaign finance reports here.

When DeVos came to Denver in July to give a speech to a group of conservative lawmakers from across the United States, Anderson organized a protest against her. In front of a crowd of hundreds, he called out the current Denver school board members.

“We can tell them, ‘Screw you. You’re fired in November!’” he said.

Anderson has a compelling personal story. The teenager struggled in high school before becoming a leader at Denver’s Manual High. He was student body president, chairman of the Colorado High School Democrats and a member of the Student Board of Education.

Anderson was also homeless for a time and has said his own challenges give him valuable insight into the lives of other Denver students living in difficult situations. About two-thirds of the district’s 92,000 students qualify for subsidized lunches, a proxy for poverty.

“I have had nobody in my corner when I was a homeless student and when I was in and out of foster care,” Anderson said at a recent televised candidate debate. “And now it is my turn to turn to our students and say, ‘I am going to be your champion.’”

His candidacy has attracted more local and national press attention than is usual for a school board race. But while Anderson has said his young age would bring a fresh perspective to the board, his opponents have questioned whether he has the experience to serve.

“It’s one thing to swing a hammer at a frustration, but it’s another to know where to swing it,” said candidate Jennifer Bacon, one of Anderson’s two opponents.

Anderson is running against Bacon, 35, and incumbent Rachele Espiritu, 48. Espiritu was appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in May 2016. The appointment process was long and marked by controversy. The first appointee, MiDian Holmes, stepped aside after details about a misdemeanor child abuse conviction and her mischaracterization of it came to light.

Both Espiritu and Bacon were among the finalists for the position. But Bacon withdrew, explaining at the time it was “in consideration of my need for growth and readiness for this position, as well as my interests in supporting the board.”

Asked recently to elaborate, Bacon said she withdrew because she sensed she wasn’t going to be appointed. She said she, too, had an arrest in her background: for stealing a necklace from Macy’s when she was in college. Bacon said the charge was dropped and she was not convicted. (No charges showed up in a background check done by Chalkbeat.)

Bacon, who attended college in Louisiana, said the arrest was a turning point at a time when she was struggling to find her purpose. She went on to join the Teach for America corps, teaching for a year in New Orleans and a year in Miami.

After teaching, she went to law school and then moved in 2010 to Denver, where she worked first as a dean for the city’s largest charter school network, DSST, and then in alumni affairs for Teach for America. She is now a regional director with Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit organization that trains educators to advocate for policy changes.

Bacon said she wondered whether her positions on key issues also made her an unlikely appointee. For instance, she has said she’s not opposed to charter schools but believes Denver has reached its threshold and should focus on shoring up its traditional schools.

“People ask me if I’m pro-charter,” Bacon said in an interview. “I’m pro-community.”

Since Espiritu was appointed, she has largely voted in line with the rest of the school board. But she chafes at the idea that the board is monolithic or a rubber stamp for the administration. Much back-and-forth occurs before a decision, she said in an interview, and each board member brings a unique background and set of life experiences to the table.

Espiritu often says on the campaign trail that she’s the only immigrant to serve on the board in the last century. She was born in the Philippines and came to the United States as a toddler. She holds a PhD in clinical psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder and helped found a small business called Change Matrix that assists organizations with planning, putting into place and monitoring change. She and her family moved to Denver in 2012.

Espiritu has two sons. Her oldest goes to DSST: Stapleton High, a charter school. Her youngest goes to William (Bill) Roberts School, a K-8 district-run school. She has said that in choosing schools for her children, she focused on quality and not on type.

As a member of the board, Espiritu has paid particular attention to efforts to improve student mental health. She recently encouraged DPS to become a “trauma-informed school district.”

“I want us to be a district that addresses student and educator trauma in a proactive or preventative way that’s culturally sensitive and systematic in fashion,” she said at a September board meeting. “…We need to shift our thinking from asking what is wrong with a child to what happened with a child.”

Parts of northeast Denver have struggled academically. The region is home to the district’s biggest-ever school turnaround effort, as well as two of three schools the board voted unanimously last year to close due to poor performance.

The candidates’ disparate views on school closure offer a window into what differentiates them. Espiritu voted for the closures, though she noted at a subsequent board meeting that doing so was “a painful process … and such a difficult decision.”

Anderson has said he opposes closing any more traditional, district-run schools. Bacon, meanwhile, has said that while she doesn’t believe in “trapping kids in failing schools,” ideas about how to turn things around should originate with affected families.

Two local groups that traditionally endorse candidates and contribute large sums of money struggled this year with who to support in District 4. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association endorsed Bacon, but a progressive caucus of the union chose to separately support Anderson. The pro-reform group Stand for Children did not endorse any candidate, explaining that both Bacon and Espiritu surpassed its “threshold for endorsement.”

Of the three candidates, Espiritu had raised the most money — $73,847 — as of Oct. 11, when the first campaign finance filing period ended. Bacon had raised $59,302, including $10,000 from the teachers union, while Anderson had raised $16,331.

Espiritu and Bacon have also benefitted from the support of independent expenditure committees. A union-funded group called Brighter Futures for Denver spent $139,000 on Bacon. Two other groups, Students for Education Reform and Raising Colorado, which is associated with Democrats for Education Reform, spent a total of $73,229 on Espiritu.

Sorting the Students

As Nashville heads to court over sharing student information with the state, here’s why Memphis probably won’t

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Nashville's Davidson County Chancery Court building where the state filed against Metro Nashville Public Schools over sharing contact information with charter schools.

Tennessee’s two largest school districts are often in lockstep on key issues. But in a recent tiff with the state about sharing student information with charter schools, the two districts are poised to part ways.

Leaders of Nashville’s school district have repeatedly defied an order from Tennessee’s education commissioner to share student addresses, phone numbers, and other information with the state’s controversial turnaround district, as required by a new state law. The state filed a lawsuit this week in response.

Meanwhile, leaders of the Memphis district have spoken out about the rule — but are preparing to comply. The district has given parents until Sunday, Oct. 22 to opt out of sharing their contact information with charter schools.

Instead of outright rejecting McQueen’s deadline last month like Nashville did, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson sought a compromise and the district has indicated contact information after the opt out window could be shared.

“… we respectfully request you extend your deadline until October 23, 2017 to allow our families the opportunity to make an informed decision regarding their rights and to give our board an opportunity to vote on the release of the data,” Hopson said in a letter to McQueen.

The state education department says it is holding off filing a similar suit against that district, for now. The Memphis district “is still deciding whether to comply, whereas Metro [Nashville] has made its decision already,” state spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “Given that, it is appropriate to file here and then review Shelby’s decision to decide if litigation is necessary.”

Shelby County Schools declined to share how many parents have chosen to opt out so far, but said it plans to share information with its board about the effort next week.

The fight has ignited long-simmering tensions around enrollment and the state’s influence in local schools, and comes on the heels of Metro Nashville Public Schools board voting to join Shelby County Schools in its landmark funding lawsuit against the state.

Memphis leaders have also said that the issue at hand is student privacy, though a robocall to Memphis parents indicated that the main goal of the opt-out process was not to lose students to charter schools.

Memphis’ compromise stance will be good news to groups like parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift, which says it has gathered about 1,200 parent signatures urging Shelby County Schools to release the contact information.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

The legal questions at stake are the first challenge to a slight, but significant, amendment to federal rules

The Nashville school board cited two reasons for defying the state’s order in late August: One is U.S. Department of Education rule that allows districts to have discretion on who gets student directory information. The second was that when state lawmakers crafted the law that requires school districts to share student information, they did not intend for that information to be used for recruitment.

According to Frank LoMonte, a First Amendment lawyer and director of The Brechner Center at the University of Florida, said the lawsuit could have national implications.

“What we’re about to see is the first test of whether the U.S. Department of Education amended rules in 2011 are enforceable or not,” he said. What it comes down to, he said, is if a federal rule can give local districts the permission to violate state law.

The Nashville board’s second justification reflects concerns from State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a key House education committee. He says the state is misinterpreting the law he helped create.

The state said in a statement that Commissioner Candice McQueen is seeking to confirm her interpretation of the new state law, “ensuring that families can be informed of all public education opportunities available to them.”

Below is a copy of the state’s court filing: