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MEEKER I Former State Senator Mike Johnston (D-Denver) will be holding a meet-and-greet for the public in Meeker this Sunday, July 16, at the Meeker Café dining room from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Johnston served in the state legislature from 2009 to January 2017 when he was term-limited. He is particularly known for successfully leading sometimes controversial education reform bills through the legislature. Johnston, 42, announced his “Frontier Fairness” campaign for governor in mid-January. He was the first prominent candidate to do so.
Johnston grew up in Eagle County. He claims that Colorado’s newest challenges can be met with our oldest values. Values, he says, that created a sense of community where we believed in a common destiny, belonged to something larger than our own lives and built a future of our own choosing. As governor, he hopes to help bridge the divides in our state in order to build an economy with a good job for every Coloradan, create affordable housing and less traffic and provide access to an excellent education for every child.
In addition to education measures, Johnston championed legislation on immigration, criminal justice and economic development, including sponsoring the Jump-Start program that provides tax incentives for new jobs in rural Colorado by encouraging the growth and expansion of companies in rural areas.
When Johnston announced, he promised to develop a debt-free program of two years college or job training to residents who then agree to serve the state. Johnston states, “The fundamental promise [we are making] is the opportunity for training in exchange for service to the state… we believe that service to the state will help cover the cost for the training. The magnitude of the challenges at this moment in our history requires big, bold ideas and a proven track record of bridging divides and getting results.”
On the other hand, Kelly Maher, a nationally recognized Republican commentator and executive director for Compass Colorado, a center-right, free-market advocacy organization based in Denver, has said of Johnston that he is “clearly making an appeal to run on the far left of his party” and suggested Johnston’s platform amounts to a “government force to make Coloradans pay for more programs.”
Following his high school career in Vail, Johnston attended Yale University earning a bachelor of arts in philosophy. He then taught for two years at a rural high school in southern Mississippi through the Teach for America program. He has written and published a book, entitled “In the Deep Heart’s Core,” based on his Mississippi experiences. He followed this teaching experience by going to the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, acquiring a master’s degree in education policy.
While consulting as an education policy adviser to political candidates, Johnston returned to Yale University earning his J.D. from Yale Law School. He came home to Colorado, becoming principal of the Marvin Foote Detention Center in Englewood which houses students held in state custody and he organized the first high school graduation program there. In 2005, Johnston taught education law at the University of Denver Law School and became the founding principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Thornton which became the model for smaller schools of the same theme.
In 2010, Forbes Magazine included Johnston as one of “Seven Most Powerful Educators.” He is or has been on the board of several non-profit organizations including the I Have a Dream Foundation, Urban League, City Year, New Leaders, America Achieves, and America Succeeds.
Johnston’s career as an elected official began in 2009 when he was chosen by the northeast Denver Democratic vacancy committee upon the resignation of State Senator Peter Groff. Johnston was elected in his own right in November 2010, and re-elected in 2012.
Three Senate Bills define his success in education reform. The first, in 2010, was the Great Teachers and Leaders Act which revolutionized teacher and school administrative accountability by using performance evaluation measures partly reliant on student academic growth and weakened tenure protections. The bill is regarded as taking a comprehensive view of education innovation and ensuring excellence in all facets of human capital in public education. It has not uniformly made the teaching community in Colorado happy.
His 2012 Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET) Act, which was developed and attempted over ten years by numerous stakeholders, allows students who graduate from a Colorado high school or obtain a GED (General Equivalency Diploma), and who are not legally entitled to be in the U.S., to pay in-state tuition for Colorado colleges and universities. Under previous law, these students, who had benefited from the state’s investment in K-12 education, were forced to pay out-of-state tuition, a prohibitive expense that most could not afford. This essentially meant, Johnston argues, that Coloradans were not receiving a return on their investment, because these students were not enrolling in college or were moving out-of-state.
Johnston’s third education legislation of note is the Reading to Ensure Academic Development (READ) Act from 2012. The measure provides resources to help kindergarten through third graders (K-3) who are reading below their grade level get up to grade level. Implementation involves resources and support for literacy assessments, professional development, instructor support, and appropriate interventions, in addition to facilitating work with the students’ parents.
Johnston lives in Denver with his wife, an assistant Denver District Attorney specializing in prosecuting crimes against children, and their three children.
The field of candidates in both parties has grown to be rather large, likely assuring there will be primaries for governor in each party next June. Due to the passage of Proposition 108 by Colorado voters last year, unaffiliated voters, for the first time, will be able to vote in the primary of either party without having to claim party membership.
Johnston has said the campaign will determine whether we have the bold leadership to define Colorado’s future for ourselves or if we will allow the future to define us. “The next governor,” he says, “will have to bridge the divides that keep us from reaching our potential as a state, and create a Colorado prepared to lead the nation for the next century. I look forward to the debate on how best we do that.”