Coffee Break: Colorado Ed Reformer Mike Johnston on DeVos, DACA and His Future in the Democratic Party

By Katelyn Silva

Mike Johnston was a Teach For America corps member in the Mississippi Delta, a principal for six years in Colorado, and served as a senior education advisor to President Obama. He just wrapped his tenure in the Colorado State Senate where he fought for pivotal education changes, including improved identification of students with learning disabilities, the provision of in-state tuition for undocumented college students, and a landmark tenure-reform bill. Most recently, he launched his bid for the Colorado Governor’s Mansion.

How does Mike Johnston stay caffeinated?

I have never, in my life, drank a cup of coffee. People will say I am hyper enough.

Congratulations on your run for governor. If you succeed, what education issues and challenges are going to rise to the top of your to-do list?

Thank you. One issue is how to provide quality early childhood education for every child who needs it. We also need to deepen and expand the work we’ve already done to improve K-12. One of the big challenges is making sure we get schools the resources they need to succeed with the agenda we built out. There are a lot of teachers working hard on the new assessment and evaluations, but we’ve had budget cuts for almost six years.

You have a deep education background that has touched different demographics. If you become governor, you’ll make education decisions on behalf of children and families from urban, suburban and rural areas. How do you feel education priorities shift across those changing landscapes? How are they the same?

There are certain similarities that kids in all settings need: access to high-quality teachers and school leaders, access to engaging content, and the sense that there is opportunity out there for them if they work hard. Those things are consistent.

In the education reform movement, we’ve been primarily focused on urban communities and kids. We’ve often left behind huge parts of the American student population who have real needs and challenges. I worked in a rural school when I was a teacher. My nieces and nephews attend a rural school district in Colorado. So, I’ve had a close connection to that. There are real differences in those areas. For example, if you live in certain rural areas of Colorado, there is no Denver Zoo, science museum, history museum, opera or theater. There are no surgeons or professionals who look like you. It is a much different challenge to dream where you want to be and how you will get there. The ability to have connections that can link rural people to opportunities in the bigger world is a big gap. So, we are working to ensure people have access to online courses that may not be available at their home school. That’s part of it, but it’s also providing workforce opportunities that allow young people to pursue careers in their own backyards.

For our suburban areas, we see access to some great schools and neighborhoods, but still an existing gap between the preparation students will need to thrive in the new economy and what they have now. Only about one quarter of Colorado students, statewide, are ready for 4-year college in all content areas. For some suburban kids, that’s a shocking surprise. They did well in school and thought they looked pretty good, but they get to college and have to take remedial courses. That’s a big challenge we want to avoid for kids, and a cost we want to avoid for their parents.

You fought for in-state college tuition for graduating Colorado high school students without legal status. What are your thoughts on the Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigration and the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)?

This is a major source of anxiety for a lot of us and particularly, many of my former students. I had young people who were at my announcement launch who were in tears because they are fifth-grade teachers who are doing amazing things to help their kids feel like they have opportunity; they are college chemistry majors; they are young people who have found their way through DACA to get through college to jobs so they can give back to their community.

In a time where teachers are hard to find, particularly teachers who are bilingual and connected to their kids, to try to pull those hard-working teachers out of classrooms…I’m very worried about it. We are trying to work out what we can do in Colorado to prevent it. This is one of the most concerning items that can affect a lot of our communities in Colorado and not just for kids who are in the program now.

Think about all of the 11th- and 12th-graders who have been convinced to work hard and get good grades to apply to college because they have opportunity ahead of them. How do you take that motivation away from an entire generation of young kids and tell them they have nothing to work towards? I think that’s far more dangerous than allowing some hard-working immigrants who are trying to do things the right way to stay and contribute to society.

What are your thoughts on Betsy DeVos and her recent hearing for education secretary?

I’m disappointed. I don’t think she showed nearly enough expertise or preparation on the core components of what a U.S. Education Secretary ought to know and be ready to do. I was hoping for someone that was much more engaged and prepared.

You’ve been called a “rising star” in the Democratic Party because of your policy chops combined with your charisma. We’re more interested here in the charisma part.

I sometimes get this question about where I learned public speaking or how to interact with so many different groups of people. My answer is always related to being a high school principal. As a high school principal, we do community meetings every morning. I have hundreds of students gathered in the auditorium who may not want to be in school or aren’t convinced yet that it’s worth it. And you have two or three minutes to convince them.

I also think my entire career has been in direct work with people. I love people. I know there is something profound that I am going to learn from them, it’s just a matter of finding out what that is. That makes the process of working with, and for, people a continuous life-giving process for me. I think that is what makes me love the work I do, and when you love the work you do, I find, that kind of radiates out.

You car was recently stolen, which thankfully you got back. But, perhaps the bigger or more interesting news is the fact that your Ford Bronco is painted bright blue and orange. What’s up with that?

It turns out that you should never take bets with your own children. About a year ago, when the Denver Broncos were in disrepair, Peyton Manning was injured, and we were falling apart, I bet our kids that if the Broncos won the Super Bowl, we could paint our car orange and blue. Peyton comes back; they make it to the Super Bowl. They win against all odds and I am stuck with the commitment to our kids. Thankfully, there was pretty much nothing you could do to reduce the value of our car. It actually ended up saving us because when the car got stolen, it’s pretty much the most recognizable car in the state. So, when it was driving down the highway, people on Facebook and Twitter reported it.

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