Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.

Rival Vision

Gubernatorial candidate Noel Ginsburg wants to do away with Colorado’s educator effectiveness law

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

If elected governor, businessman Noel Ginsburg says he would work to expand apprenticeship programs, raise teacher salaries, send more money to schools – and repeal a signature legislative achievement of one of his Democratic primary rivals.

Ginsburg, who is running for elected office for the first time, currently runs CareerWise Colorado, an apprenticeship program that Gov. John Hickenlooper considers one of the chief accomplishments of his administration.

In its second year, it’s still a long way from reaching its goal of serving 20,000 students statewide. Ginsburg is also the founder and CEO of Intertech Plastics, a company that does custom injection molding, and the co-founder, with his wife Leslie, of the I Have A Dream Foundation, which works to increase the state’s high school graduation rate.

Ginsburg released an education platform this week that calls for putting a lot more money into education and giving teachers more of a voice in policy decisions. Teachers unions have already endorsed former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy.

Ginsburg told Chalkbeat he wouldn’t have minded getting their endorsement, but he understands that as a newcomer to politics, he needs to work hard to “claw my way to viability.”

“The teachers union, whether they support me or not, they will be my partners,” he said. “I don’t believe the unions have all the answers, but boy, do they deserve a seat at the table.”

Ginsburg’s education platform calls for:

  • Expanding high-quality apprenticeship programs
  • Filling the skills gap so that more students graduate into good-paying jobs
  • Convincing voters to approve changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to let the state keep more money
  • Convincing voters to approve tax increases for education
  • Restoring trust in government when it comes to education
  • Improving teacher pay
  • Repealing 2010 legislation that requires teachers to demonstrate effectiveness and ties teacher pay to student performance

Former state Sen. Mike Johnston, now a Democratic candidate for governor, was the author of that legislation, Senate Bill 191. A former teacher and school principal, Johnston stood behind the law in a 2016 Chalkbeat interview.

But Ginsburg said that in his view, the law had been used as a “club” against teachers and students.

“You need those measurements, but if you are measured by the measures in 191, you are measured by a system that is flawed,” he said. “It was well-intentioned at the time, but I don’t think it’s met the objectives.”

Kennedy’s education plan does not call for the abolition of Senate Bill 191, but supports giving more weight to teachers’ “perspectives and expertise” in evaluations.

Ginsburg has criticized other candidates in the Democratic primary for making promises that will be hard to deliver, particularly around education. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis wants to provide universal access to preschool, and Johnston wants to provide debt-free college in exchange for community service. Ginsburg said he would love to see both those things, but first the state needs to adequately fund the existing K-12 education system.

To do that, Ginsburg says he would lead a coalition to reform TABOR so that Coloradans keep the ability to vote on tax increases but the state gets to keep more of the money generated by a booming economy.

TABOR reform – a premise on which Kennedy’s education platform also depends – might seem just as unlikely if you look at Colorado history. But Ginsburg said he believes that with the right leadership, voters can be persuaded.

Ginsburg also is pledging to lead a campaign for a tax increase to fund education. Colorado voters have twice before rejected such measures, and a coalition of state and local school leaders want to put a tax increase for education on the ballot again this year. Ginsburg said he supports the general idea, but he’s not sure it’s the right proposal.

TABOR reform and tax increases for education don’t seem unrealistic or undoable to Ginsburg.

“If we cannot raise more dollars for education, it would ultimately leave me speechless,” he said. “We can either say we’re not going to make the investment, and we’re okay with declining opportunity for our students or … I cannot fathom a continuation of the current trends because I think it leads to a Colorado none of us can be proud of.”

Ginsburg sees apprenticeships as key to addressing income inequality and preserving the middle class.

Ginsburg said that as governor, he would use his “bully pulpit” to get more businesses involved in apprenticeship programs and to explain the value of these programs to students. He stressed that CareerWise largely does not depend on taxpayer dollars, nor is it a substitute for a four-year college degree for those who want to pursue one. CareerWise apprenticeships allow students to earn money and college credit as they learn work skills.

He described business and industry as missing players in the education world. Teachers are doing their job, he said, but they can’t possibly show students every way that math, science, reading, and writing will be applied in the work world.

“We put all the burden on K-12 and act as the consumer of the final product, and that’s not right,” he said. “We can share the burden.”

Read more about Cary Kennedy’s education platform here.

Read more about Jared Polis’ plan for universal preschool here.

Read about Mike Johnston’s plan for free college in exchange for community service here.

And read our take-aways from the first gubernatorial forum with an education focus here.

Next Generation

Here’s why advocates want Colorado students to ask the questions at a candidate forum on mental health

PHOTO: Andy Cross/Denver Post

When seven candidates for governor take the stage at a Denver forum on mental health next month, they’ll answer questions from Colorado residents who may still have braces and learner’s permits.

Students, that is.

Leaders of Mental Health Colorado, the advocacy group organizing the candidate forum on March 23, say they’re soliciting student questions because many young people already understand the impact of mental health problems.

“Kids are in some ways the best champions because they’re the closest to this issue,” said Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado. “Even if they’re not old enough to vote, they’re old enough to have a say.”

Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation and several school districts in the state have grappled with multiple student suicides in recent years.

Mental Health Colorado is asking middle school, high school, and college students to submit questions in advance of the event. The lunchtime forum will also feature some questions from adults.

Romanoff said the recent high school shooting in Florida by a 19-year-old with a long history of disturbing behavior has raised awareness about mental health issues, but doesn’t provide an accurate picture of how people coping with mental health problems behave.

“Most people with mental illness are not violent. In fact, they’re more likely to be the victim than the perpetrator,” he said.

There are “a lot of folks now saying we have to do something about mental health, and we welcome their support,” he said. “I don’t want to suggest that that alone will solve the nation’s gun violence crisis.”

So far, the gubernatorial candidates who have committed to attending the forum include Democrats Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg, and Erik Underwood, and Republicans Victor Mitchell, Cynthia Coffman, Lew Gaiter and Stephen Barlock.

To submit questions for the candidates, students can email The deadline for submissions is March 19. For more information about the forum, visit the event page.