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.

turnover

The principal of Denver’s South High School is leaving due to health concerns

PHOTO: Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
South High Principal Jen Hanson will not return this fall.

The principal of Denver’s second-largest school, South High, has said she won’t return this fall. In a letter to families, Jen Hanson cited “personal health concerns” as the reason for her departure.

“It greatly saddens me to write this,” Hanson said in the letter, dated June 18. “A strong school is never about the leader but the staff and students inside who make it thrive, and that is South.”

Denver Public Schools has named Bobby Thomas the interim principal for the 2018-19 school year. Thomas has been principal of a small alternative high school in southwest Denver called Summit Academy for six years, according to a separate letter from the district.

The letter says the district will work with the South community to choose a permanent principal for the 2019-20 school year.

South has been on an upward trajectory for the 2½ years Hanson has been at the helm. The letter lists several bright spots, including a rising graduation rate, the second-highest college matriculation rate in the district, and being named a “School of Opportunity” by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado – an accomplishment that netted South some positive press in the Washington Post.

The award was based on South’s success in educating all students, regardless of their background. South is a district “newcomer center” for refugee and immigrant students from more than 50 countries. A book published last year by Denver journalist Helen Thorpe follows the lives of 22 immigrant teenagers there. In 2016, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai made a surprise appearance at the school.

Almost 70 percent of the 1,600 students at South this past year were students of color, and more than half were from low-income families. Hanson’s letter notes that the number of students of color taking college-level classes at South increased from 72 in 2016 to 592 in 2018, one of the reasons cited by researchers in naming it a “School of Opportunity.”

In January 2017, shortly after President Trump announced a travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and temporarily suspended the U.S. refugee program, South invited local journalists to speak to a group of students in the library. Seated in a semi-circle, the students talked about how South was a safe and welcoming place.

“Even if you are a minority student or a student who’s being targeted by politicians or told you don’t have a right to be here, we want you here at South,” said then-senior Cherokee Ronolo-Valdez, who was born and raised in Denver.

In her letter, Hanson said she knows South will continue to distinguish itself locally and nationally. “South is truly the epitome of what a public school can and should be,” she said.

The district’s letter says interim principal Thomas has family ties to South: his wife, mother-in-law, and father-in-law are alumni of the school. It also points to Thomas’s track record, noting that he oversaw the improvement of Summit Academy from a low-rated school to a high-rated one. (The district’s school ratings are largely based on test scores.)

Summit assistant principal Juan Osorio will take over as principal there, district officials said.

The letter says South families should expect more information in the fall about the process of choosing a permanent principal. The district is also still searching for a permanent principal for another of its high-profile schools, Manual High School in northeast Denver.

student activism

Five Chicago student activists on why they will be in your face this summer

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

Trevon Bosley’s brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. Shot from the street while helping a friend with drums in 2006, he was just one of the 471 people killed by gun violence that year in Chicago.

Through a peer youth council at St. Sabina Church in Auburn Gresham, Bosley, 20, became an outspoken student activist, and tonight he will join hundreds of students converging for an annual peace march that starts at the church. Chicago’s tradition of youth activism will be on full display, but the local students are getting a high-powered boost. Joining them are Chicago musicians Chance the Rapper and Jennifer Hudson and former Arizona House Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in 2011 at a public meeting with constituents. There will also be another set of special guests: the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fl., where a February shooter killed 17 students and teachers.

All week long, local student activists have been rallying and some Parkland students have lended an assist. Several staged a sit-in in City Hall on Monday to protest the proposed construction of a $95 million police academy on the West side and call for an elected school board. Others staged a die-in on in front of Trump Tower on Tuesday to commemorate the second anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

Chalkbeat sat down with five Chicago student activists to hear why they take action and what they hope to achieve.


"Gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore 24/7."Alycia Moaton

East Woodlawn resident Alycia Moaton, 17, attends Kenwood Academy. She’s part of Good Kids Mad City, a new advocacy organization formed by Chicago and Baltimore students. This past Monday, Good Kids Mad City members were central figures in the City Hall sit-in this past Monday.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alycia Moaton
Alycia Moaton outside City Hall earlier this week

On becoming an activist: I grew up in Oak Park for about 10 years of my life. Then I moved into Chicago. Going to public schools on the South Side, it was like a completely different world. A lot of the students—their first thought is whether or not they’ll be able to go to school that day because they’re worrying about getting shot on the way there. When I got to experience both sides, experience what it’s like to not fear going to school, I could see just how messed up it is.

Starting off around three years ago, I went to a lot of protests and youth summits, and that turned me into wanting to be part of an organization. That’s how I got in touch with Good Kids Mad City. Good Kids Mad City came to be after the Parkland shooting, from the idea that gun violence isn’t mainly just about mass shootings. These kinds of things happen in Chicago, Baltimore, 24/7, and it’s as national as a mass shooting.

What she hopes to achieve: One of my main goals is that [the rally tonight] gets a lot of national coverage. The Parkland students are allowing us to make the narrative about Chicago. I hope people leave with the idea of not treating gun violence as just a local issue, with the idea that this isn’t normal. This shouldn’t be viewed as “Oh, this is just how Chicago is, Chicago is just a violent city.”

The big goal is to have people change their narrative about what gun violence in Chicago is, that it has to be taken way more seriously than just a local issue.


"When people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders."Diego Garcia

Brighton Park resident Diego Garcia, 16, led 15 local teenagers to the March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. in March. Earlier this week, he participated in the die-in outside Trump Tower. He is also a member of Chicago Strong, the citywide youth group organizing tonight’s rally.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia outside Trump Tower earlier this week

On becoming an activist: The parents in my community are immigrants, and so are my teachers and my friends. After Trump became president, they felt like, if they speak up for what they believe in, they’re putting themselves in danger of being targeted by the government.

I decided that if I really had nothing to lose, then I would be the voice for them. I’m a citizen of the U.S., and just being a citizen, I have many rights that a lot of other people feel like they don’t have—the right to voice my opinion, to vote about my future.

After the Parkland shooting, my priest said that he would support me in taking 15 teenagers to Washington, D.C., for March for Our Lives. It was one of the best times that I’ve had in my life, because not only were my peers standing up for what they believe in, but also I knew that I wasn’t alone. There was, visually, all around you, people who cared about you.

What he hopes to achieve: I hope that, after the rally, people realize that we young people in Chicago, we want something to change. A lot of the adults like normalizing the violence. The 14-year-old that got shot, or the adult that was going to the store and got shot for no good reason—no one talks about these small things because it happens so often.

I hope that people’s perspective of Chicago changes, because when people think of Chicago, they think of the most violent city. I hope that they think of it as the home of the young leaders.


"It takes everybody. We need people from every region to contribute so we can get total change."Alex King

Austin resident Alex King, 17, just graduated from North Lawndale College Prep. At North Lawndale, he was a Peace Warrior, a youth ambassador for violence prevention. After the Parkland shooting, he traveled to Parkland to visit student survivors. Alex is also part of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Alex King
Alex King on a radio interview

On becoming an activist: It started with me wanting a shirt. At North Lawndale College Prep, we have to wear these button-up shirts with collars, and it’s hot. One Thursday, I was seeing these different shirts, regular long-sleeve shirts. It had “Peace Warriors” going down the sleeve, a peace sign on the back, and I was like, “I want one of those.” Then I also heard that Peace Warriors get pulled out of class sometimes, and I’m like “Yeah, if we can get out of class, for sure!”

After joining Peace Warriors, it got to a point where I felt that family connection—these were some of the people I went to when I couldn’t even go to my own family. I’ve been shot at multiple times and I didn’t go to my family, because I didn’t want to put that burden on their shoulders. I went to the Peace Warriors because I knew some of them experienced the same thing, and it’s also easier to connect with people in your age range.

My nephew was shot and killed on May 28, 2017. Shot twice: once in the back of the head and once in the back. I feel like I would have done something that would have put me in a way worse spot than I’m in now if I didn’t have Peace Warriors. They came to me every day, and were like “We are here for you no matter what.” I was known as the one with all the energy. When those people saw me down, they told me,”‘You were always the one to cheer everybody up, so we have to be here for you, to get you back like that.”

What he hopes to achieve: I want people to walk away [tonight] and believe that change can happen. We might be different in a lot of ways, but we are alike in more ways than we are different. I want people to see the fact that we can’t be independent, if we want to make change across the world, we all have to come together to make this work.

We can’t try change the world with only Chicago, we can’t try to change the world with only Florida. It takes everybody. We need people from every region to put their input on so we can get total change.


"Be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something."Trevon Bosley

Roseland native Trevon Bosley is a rising junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. He joined Bold Resistance Against Violence Everywhere, or B.R.A.V.E., a peer youth council run through the St. Sabina youth program, in 2010. He is also a member of Chicago Strong.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Trevon Bosley
Trevon Bosley at March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. earlier this year

On becoming an activist: On April 4, 2006, my brother was murdered while attending band rehearsal at church. He was outside helping a friend with drums. Someone fired shots at them and he was shot in the shoulder. After that, my parents got in contact with (the Rev.) Michael Pfleger at St. Sabina, and he introduced me to B.R.A.V.E.

The main things that the older B.R.A.V.E. members told me was to be smart with campaigns. If you’re gonna march, make sure you’re doing it in a community that can really change something. They told me to just be effective when you’re planning and strategizing your movement.

A while back [around three years ago], we did a voter registration campaign. The strategic thing was how we planned to tackle violence. We know that we have a lot of gun violence in Chicago, but we have to understand why. We noticed that the elected officials at the time weren’t allocating resources to anti-violence initiatives, and the only way you can get politicians to listen to you is to vote. We identified what the problem was and how to go about addressing it.

What he hopes to achieve: We’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been fighting for change in the community for a very long time. Tonight’s rally is going to be bigger because of the Parkland influence. We’ve been fighting in Chicago for a very long time for peace, but only recently has the national media really wanted to cover our everyday shootings. The Parkland influence is giving us the platform, it’s led to our voices finally being heard about everyday shootings.


"I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories because they always twist it around, and then you’re like: That’s not me."RieOnna Holmon

RieOnna Holmon, 15, attends Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep in Rosewood, and she lives in Woodlawn. She joined B.R.A.V.E in 2017, where she received mentorship from older members such as Trevon. Most recently, RieOnna became the president of B.R.A.V.E.

PHOTO: Courtesy of RieOnna Holman
RieOnna Holman speaking at St. Sabina in March

On becoming an activist: I joined B.R.A.V.E. last summer when I did an internship at the ARK of St. Sabina. I just started going to the meetings and taking part in all of the rallies. I see myself in these children [that I mentor], how I was naïve and didn’t really know anything. Being able to teach them about what is really happening out there really shows me that the youth need to be educated about what’s going on.

What she hopes to achieve: [Tonight,] I want to make sure that we tell our stories ourselves, and not have social media or the news tell our stories for them because they always twist it around and you’re always like, “That’s not me.”

It happens a lot. People will talk about someone they lost, and [media outlets] will turn it around being like, this “x” gang member. But we didn’t tell you that. I know now that I have to actually get out there and tell it for myself, because otherwise what’s out there could not be true or another side of the story.