Why you should care

This charismatic onetime teacher is already a major player in the policy efforts reshaping American schools. And he’s only 39.

Colorado legislator Mike Johnston is very hard to dislike. And that helps him a lot in the heated and often personal national debate over how to fix America’s lagging and unequal school system, which often means battling against teachers and teachers’ unions. At just 39, he’s already become a major player in efforts to reshape American schools by helping to make Colorado a hotbed for reform.

In contrast to the take-no-prisoners approach of many of today’s reformers (Michelle Rhee’s stormy tenure as D.C. schools chancellor being a prominent example), Johnston is warm and fuzzy. A consensus builder. Eager to engage even his most vociferous critics.

I’ve spent the most time on policy with people who disagree with me the most because I find that’s where it’s the most productive.

— Mike Johnston

Take his response to angry protests against his selection as Harvard’s Graduate School of Education commencement speaker this May. Unlike former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and IMF chief Christine Lagarde, who pulled out from grad speeches this spring after similar protests, Johnston wasn’t fazed. Instead, he suggested to the dean of the school, where he got his Masters, that he meet the protesters a day before the speech. A 45-minute meeting turned into a two-hour policy discussion. And Johnston received a standing ovation after his remarks the next day.

“I’ve spent the most time on policy with people who disagree with me the most because I find that’s where it’s the most productive,” he told OZY. But he also suggests the divisions in the education world are exaggerated. “I’ve just always found that there’s a lot more that we have in common than we disagree on,” he says, adding that “more of the separation comes from tone than content.”

The guy has a knack for the human touch.

That’s bad news for Colorado’s teachers’ unions, who have been fighting (and mostly losing to) the one-time school principal and Teach for America veteran ever since he won a special election to the state Senate in 2009.

At the heart of the fight: whether broad-based education standards (á la the controversial Common Core national teaching and learning guidelines) and strict teacher accountability measures are the answer to fixing problem-plagued school districts. Critics say they just hurt teachers and kids.

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.

Mike Johnston smiling with other people

Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts as school director.

NYU education historian Diane Ravitch, one of the most prominent critics of current education reform efforts, called it “the most punitive, anti-teacher law in the nation.”

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.

“Unfortunately, that’s one of the few things we have been able to work together,” says CEA Executive Director Tony Salazar. He told OZY that Johnston is among a group of “testing zealots who are basically out of touch from what … the public want from their education system.”

He does, however, credit Johnston for always making himself available “to people on all sides of the issue.”

The son and grandson of teachers and principals, Johnston always knew he wanted to follow them into education. So after growing up in the ski resort town of Vail and graduating from Yale in 1997, he joined Teach for America, a national volunteer program that trains and places rookie teachers into hard-to-fill positions in low-income schools. After two years teaching in the rural Mississippi Delta — which he says remains “the single most powerful experience I’ve had” — and writing a book about it, Johnston went back to graduate school for his education and law degrees. He parlayed his research and contacts there into several political advising gigs, including a role as one of President Obama’s education advisers during the 2008 campaign.

After finishing his education, Johnston moved back to Colorado in 2005 to help found the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, a public high school in a predominantly Hispanic Denver suburb. Johnston was serving as principal there when the new Obama administration tapped Denver-area state Sen. Peter Groff for a job in the Education Department.

… The biggest change I wanted to make was to build one school that could be a model of some of the things that were possible. And then I found out there were all these policy hurdles …

— Mike Johnston

Politics wasn’t initially part of the plan.

“For a while, I felt like the biggest change I wanted to make was to build one school that could be a model of some of the things that were possible,” Johnston explains of his decision to run in 2009. “And then I found out there were all these policy hurdles that still exist that we have to clear. So for this season, I felt like the biggest change we needed to make was a policy change.”

His policy chops and especially his communication skills point to a bright political future should he opt to pursue higher office when he hits his state legislature term limits in 2016.

“I’m really excited about the next two years. We’ve got a lot of work left to do, but then I’ll have to pick my head up and say, what’s the next most important change to make and what’s the most important place to make that?”

Colorado members of Congress take heed: you might want to shore up political support between now and 2016.

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