State Sen. Mike Johnston: An Up and Comer in Education Reform

Why should Americans concerned about education know the name of a state senator from Colorado? Because he, and others like him who are willing to work across the aisle, are likely to be the face of American education reform of the future.

State Senator Mike Johnston has quite the pedigree: Ivy League undergrad (Yale), Teach for America English teacher for 2 years in the impoverished Mississippi delta and a book about the experience to boot, work for President Obama’s 2008 campaign on education, then Master’s degrees in education and law, followed by becoming principal of a new model school in Denver, finally followed by his entrance into politics in Colorado. At only age 39, Johnston should, in many ways, be the darling of corporate model education reform and the enemy of traditional public school advocates, yet the reality is different. Johnston has developed a reputation as someone who is willing to sit down and talk with anyone in hopes of helping American students. As such, he is a model for anyone concerned with American education reform.

As one example, when he was selected to give the commencement address at Harvard (one of his Master’s degrees is from there), some students spoke out aggressively against the choice. Rather than fight back or back out, he volunteered to meet those opposed to him the day before his commencement address. The session lasted two hours, and laid the groundwork for a commencement address that garnered a standing ovation.

The fact that he is diplomatic and a good listener does not, however, mean that he is not ideological. Here is a brief segment from a recently published article:

Johnston really got teachers’ backs up in 2010 when he spearheaded a law that mandated a new teacher evaluation regime, using tests to measure student improvement. It also remade the state’s teacher tenure law — a controversial form of job protection that a California court just struck down — making it easier to fire veteran teachers and changing how teachers are reassigned to new positions, prompting a lawsuit from the Colorado Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union.

While this might seem like an ideologue out to punish teachers unions, don’t pigeonhole him so quickly:

The CEA is, however, working with Johnston and other supporters of the bill to implement the new evaluation system, which is still in the process of being rolled out. They also teamed up to try and pass legislation that would have fundamentally remade the school funding system in Colorado, directing more money to high-needs districts and students and raising taxes to bring in more cash for schools. The effort was rejected handily in a public referendum last fall.

Obviously more work and time are needed before united efforts at reform will have a chance to succeed, but efforts like this in which both parties discuss options and work together certainly offer promise for the future.

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