State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, represents Senate District 33 in Northeast Denver.
Governor Bill Ritter’s four years saw a burst of progressive education legislation that is already beginning to pay huge dividends to the children of Colorado. I think in four short years Gov. Ritter has had a more dramatic impact on improving education in this state than perhaps any other governor.
From the creation of new accountability structures to ensure that all of our schools meet the expectations of parents and community members to the increased focus on ensuring that our educators are highly effective, Colorado has quickly become one of the nation’s leaders in pursuing much needed reforms to a foundering system.
One of those reforms, of course, is SB 191. Though there is less media attention now, the important work of the Great Teachers and Leaders law continues. The Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness is moving closer and closer to finalizing its work and its members will present their findings to the State Board of Education in April. There are public comment sessions at all of their meetings and once they have made their recommendations, the State Board will hold more comment sessions as they go about creating the rules that will fill in the council’s framework.
The council has made enormous strides so far and I am incredibly impressed at the way all of the members have dedicated themselves to creating the best system possible for everyone involved.
Take time to implement
Many people have asked what the big new education work is at the Capitol this year, to which I have often responded: Implementing the big work we’ve already started.
With Colorado in the middle of rolling out new standards, developing new state assessments that will replace CSAP, and overhauling our principal and teacher evaluation system, a number of the most critical components of our statewide system are in flux.
This summer I had the opportunity to talk with more than 1,000 teachers and more than 70 superintendents and their consistent message was that they are committed to getting standards, assessments and evaluations done right, but they need the time to do that before embarking on another big initiative.
Nonetheless, there are two critical issues for us to address. The first is student accountability. Throughout my conversations with teachers and principals this topic comes up over and over again, with educators commenting that, “we’re fine with adults being held accountable, but students need to have some skin in the game.”
I think this is absolutely true and when you look at states that have made dramatic improvements, like Massachusetts—now the highest performing state in the country—they have done it with accountability requirements for students including high stakes exit exams. Other states like Florida have implemented legislation ending social promotion that requires students to be able to read by third grade before being promoted to fourth grade.
Florida has seen striking gains in their state, nearly closing the white/Latino achievement gap so that now Latino students in Florida outperform all students in 31 states, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).
The second issue is our current method of financing schools based on a single October count day. As educators know, this single count day makes for a statewide production every October that results in perverse incentives to get students into the building one day of the year and no incentives to keep them there after that.
I know there are districts doing amazing work on retention efforts, but we also know we are one of 13 states in country still using a single count day because it means districts are never paid for mobile students who come later in the year, nor are they rewarded for successfully keeping students enrolled throughout the year. I am committed to working with districts and school boards to find a better way to count our students and am looking forward to the report from the commission to inform this conversation.
Unfortunately, recent legislative sessions have also brought devastating budget cuts to our school districts, hampering some of the efforts of great teachers, administrators, and board members. Unfortunately, those cuts are likely to be necessary again as the state faces a $1.2 billion budget shortfall this year but I plan to do everything possible to avoid balancing the budget on the backs of children.
Confronting the budget crisis
This next round of budget crisis should finally force a conversation about what kind of Colorado we want to live in, and what resources we need to support that Colorado. I often said during the 191 debate that this is one part of a two part process: One is implementing the reforms the state needs to better use the resources we have, and two is getting the resources we need to adequately do the job in front of us.
This means we need to find a way to increase revenues for K-12 and higher education and we must be preparing to make our case to the voters of Colorado to do this. I am looking forward to the report of the DU tax study group at the end of this month that will make recommendations for the road ahead.
Which leads us to what I believe will be the most important piece of education legislation this session and one that will unite everyone who believes in quality education for the children of Colorado. I am honored to partner with my new colleague Senator Angela Giron of Pueblo as we introduce the Colorado ASSET bill, which aims to provide in-state tuition to undocumented students who successfully complete Colorado high schools in good standing.
In-state tuition for undocumented students
As a high school principal in Mapleton, I watched as high school seniors—many of whom had never known any country but the United States—realized they could not afford their dreams of college because they didn’t have the opportunity to pay in-state tuition like all of their classmates. Even more depressing was watching as their brothers and sisters, knowing they faced the same fate, gave up on high school even earlier and joined gangs, used drugs, and squandered their brilliance because of the obstacles that we have erected.
This issue can bring in much needed resources to our cash-strapped institutions of higher education, reward those students who have done everything right in their quest for the American dream, and ensures that Colorado can continue to develop a top-flight workforce in future generations.
Standing in the MESA cafeteria and having to explain to students and parents why they couldn’t go to college like the rest of their classmates was one of the reasons I originally ran for this seat when Peter Groff, one of the great champions of this issue, left the Senate.
I believe this is one of the great civil rights issues of our time, and offers us a chance to ensure that every Colorado resident who works hard, plays by the rules and graduates from a Colorado high school has the chance to make a positive contribution to our state.
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