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Ex-Obama Adviser Who Championed Teacher Evaluations to Seek Senate Seat


Mike Johnston, a former adviser to President Barack Obama on education issues who was also the standard-bearer for requiring Colorado educators to be evaluated based on test scores, announced Thursday that he plans to run for the U.S. Senate in 2020. 

Johnston is a former Democratic state senator in Colorado and a Teach For America alumnus. He recently ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination to be Colorado governor in 2018; he lost that primary fight to former congressman Jared Polis, who won the general election in November. If Johnston wins the 2020 Democratic primary for Senate, he would take on incumbent Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in the general election. 

In a video announcing his candidacy, Johnston highlighted his experience as a teacher and a principal:

Among education policy mavens, Johnston might be best known for his role as the primary backer of an overhaul to how teachers are evaluated in Colorado. The bill he successfully supported in 2010 required teachers to be judged on their students' test scores—if results weren't up to snuff, their jobs could be on the line. The law also ended seniority-based layoffs, and required tenure decisions for teachers to be based on student performance. Johnston's work on the legislation attracted national attention at the time; in his Education Week blog, Rick Hess called him a "superstar." 

But the legislation also ignited strong opposition from the state teachers' union, and some of his Democratic colleagues at the time tried to sink the legislation. Opponents filed legal challenges to the bill. In a 2017 Education Week Commentary piece, Van Schoales said the law had failed to live up to its promise, in part because administrators simply had not adopted the teacher-evaluation system as the law intended.

In a 2016 interview with Chalkbeat, Johnston said that some parts of the law were working better than others, and reiterated his belief that teachers should be evaluated in part on student test scores. 

He also championed the READ Act, a 2012 Colorado law designed to improve students' literacy by requiring annual evaluations of students literacy in grades K-3, among other changes. And he helped pass the ASSET Act, which provides in-state tuition to Colorado residents who are in the U.S. illegally, provided that they attended three years of high school in the state. 

On the other side of the ledger, Johnston unsuccessfully lobbied for a 2013 ballot initiative that would have raised taxes by $950 million to benefit public schools. He told Education Week before the initiative failed that the structure of the initiative could create a model for the rest of the nation to follow. He subsequently called the defeat of that initiative the biggest defeat of his political career. 

Johnston advised Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, and afterward won a seat in the state legislature in 2009.

It will be interesting to observe if Johnston's record on education issues hurts him in the primary, especially if a large number of Colorado Democrats jump into the election to try to seat the relatively vulnerable Gardner. In stark contrast to 2010, teachers' strikes and walkouts in states around the country have gathered national political attention and could shape candidates' views on education in the next election cycle. Indeed, the Denver teachers' union just went on strike. 

The Colorado chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that advocates for test-based teacher evaluations among other policies, was told in not-so-polite terms to take a hike by the state Democratic Party last year during the gubernatorial election. At the time, Johnston sat on the advisory group of Colorado's DFER chapter.

During the gubernatorial race, Johnston stated his support for limited school choice, namely charters but not vouchers. And he highlighted his opposition to Betsy DeVos' nomination for education secretary. 

If he wins the Senate seat next year, watch for him as a prime candidate to end up on the Senate education committee. Colorado's current Democrat in the Senate, Michael Bennet, served on that committee until leaving at the start of this year—he joined the Intelligence Committee. 

Image: Screen capture of Mike Johnston from his U.S. Senate launch video. 

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