policy position

Doug Robinson, GOP candidate for governor, wants more authority to fix state’s struggling schools

Doug Robinson in a campaign photo. (Courtesy Doug Robinson)

Republican gubernatorial hopeful Doug Robinson would like to see a fundamental change to Colorado’s public education system — one that gives the governor’s office far more authority.

Robinson, a former investment banker and nephew of former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Tuesday in an interview that he believes a lack of gubernatorial oversight has led to stagnation, especially in low-performing schools.

“That’s frankly one of the reasons why we’ve not had a lot of the successes other states have had,” he said. “We have limited tools to encourage them to make changes.”

Robinson spoke to Chalkbeat in advance of the formal unveiling this week of his education platform.

One of several GOP candidates, Robinson is calling for greater investments in charter schools and STEM education, and for reforming the state’s teacher licensure policies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your education plan calls for expanding school choice. What does that look like and what role do private school vouchers play?

It looks like the state encouraging all of our local school districts to expand choice to all of our families.

My priority is to advocate for more choice inside the school systems we already have, and making sure all schools are getting the resources they need to compete effectively. I was very supportive of the bill to make sure charter schools got all of the mill levy revenues traditional schools are getting.

I’m open to tax credits and vouchers, but we need to proceed carefully. That might be part of the solution, but you can’t start with that or else you’ll open up a world war within the education community.

What sort of specific resources or policies would you support to improve district-run schools?

The challenge today for the governor of Colorado is that the governor doesn’t have direct control of schools like the governor does in most other states. So the governor doesn’t get to appoint anybody to the state board or the department of education. And we have local control, which is generally a good thing. So the school district gets to decide a lot of things.

A lot of governors have said, “I don’t have a lot to do here.” But what the governor has is the power of the bully pulpit.

I’d encourage statutory changes to do something like what Louisiana has done to create a Recovery School District. I fundamentally believe there isn’t a population in the state that, with the right school leadership and teachers, can’t produce great results for our kids.

I would advocate for the governor to be able to appoint the head of the department of education. And I would advocate for giving the department of education — statutorily — a bigger stick to compel accountability.

Generally, I’m a fan of more local control. You have high standards and you let the local districts get there. But if they’re failing, we need a way to reconstitute those schools. We need to do it for the kids. We cannot allow poor performance to continue.

You’re calling for public-private partnerships to increase access to STEM education. It takes a lot of time and human resources for schools to go out and create those partnerships. How would you ensure that all schools, especially those that might not have an extra teacher or aide to spare, can create those partnerships?

That’s a role where government and the governor’s office, working with the department of education, can help identify businesses or nonprofits in these communities that are looking for talent and a desire to give back and make a difference and connect them together.

Your platform says, “We must improve our (teacher) evaluation system, so we can pay our best more.” But the state’s evaluation system isn’t connected to pay. And that’s something local school districts decide. Are you suggesting this is something the state should take over — teacher salary?

No. This is more of a bully pulpit. I would not suggest the state board of education set compensation. That’s the district’s job. But we should advocate for school districts to make differentiation based on performance and to have incentives.

Even though there is a lot of research out there that suggests it doesn’t work?

There’s also research that shows that it does. I look at the experiences in some of the schools in the metro region. And business experience leads me to believe incentive compensation does work.

You’re calling for teacher licensure reform. This is something that has vexed lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper. What are your ideas around reform and how are you going to succeed where others have failed?

Fundamentally, we want to put our best talent on the field. We ought to allow districts across the state to compensate and incentivize teachers to do well, and pay the physics teachers more than the gym teacher. That’s not universally happening across the state.

Whoever is the next governor, and I hope it’s me, will have an opportunity for a fresh start. It’s around leadership. It’s about a restart with a new governor. And you bring people together. And there is some compromise. And you agree to a plan. And you execute it.

You start with those harder to hire areas, such as STEM, and you provide a way for school districts to hire the talent that they need to fill those jobs and get the best teachers in the classroom. You make the reforms to allow that to happen.

Maybe they would not have to have a full teaching certificate. Districts need to be able to hire people from industry with significant experience, and who are willing to get some additional training, but not have to go back to college to get into a classroom.

getting to know you

Colorado conservatives are pressing Republican gubernatorial candidates on education policy. Here’s how.

Radio host Ross Kaminsky, left, and Republican gubernatorial candidate George Brauchler before a telephone town hall Aug. 29. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

It’s just before 7 p.m. Tuesday and conservative talk radio host Ross Kaminsky asks his producer to include 30 seconds of background music to his introduction.

“It gotta be something like ‘Hot for Teacher’ or ‘School’s Out For the Summer,’” Kaminsky’s guest, George Brauchler, a Republican candidate for governor, suggests with a chuckle. “Doesn’t it have to have an education theme?”

Brauchler, district attorney for Colorado’s 18th judicial district that includes Arapahoe and Douglas counties, was the first leading GOP candidate to speak with Kaminsky about education issues in what will be a series of telephone town halls.

The hour-long conversations, which are also broadcast live on KHOW-AM and streamed online, are paid for by Ready Colorado, a political nonprofit that advocates for conservative education reform policies.

Though it’s common for advocacy groups to try to pin down candidates on issues during political campaigns, the paid radio forum — on a media platform long favored by conservatives — is an unusual strategy for elevating education as a campaign issue.

Luke Ragland, president of Ready Colorado, said the conversations are designed to help voters better understand where conservative candidates stand on policy matters such as school choice and standardized testing.

During the first town hall, Brauchler said he favors creating new entities that can authorize charter schools, establishing education savings accounts for parents that work like vouchers for private schools, and maintaining some form of end-of-year standardized testing to measure school quality.

“I need public education to be awesome right now,” said Brauchler, who has four children in Douglas County schools.. “Not in 10 years from now, but right now.”

Unlike most other states, Colorado’s governor has little sway over public schools. Most authority resides at the local school board level, while the state legislature and board of education write and put into practice statewide policies. (The governor does hold veto power over legislation).

“The governor might have little authority in the technical sense, but the governor has great power to influence education policy and how schools are run,” Ragland said. “No one has the bully pulpit that the governor has. I do think that is a great deal of power.”

Other leading GOP candidates include former state lawmaker and businessman Victor Mitchell and former investment banker Doug Robinson. Robinson is the nephew of 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman are expected to join the race to succeed Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who is term-limited.

The Democrats also have a crowded primary field. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy and businessman Noel Ginsburg all are running. Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne also is considering a run.

Democrats for Education Reform, a political nonprofit, said it is not planning to hold similar conversations with candidates.

“Unlike the Republican candidates that need coaching about policy that serves kids, I believe every Democratic candidate running for governor has decades-long records of policy making experience in the best interest of students,” Jen Walmer, DFER’s state director, said in an email.

Ragland acknowledged the Democrats have long voting records and policy positions, but said improving the state’s schools is top of mind to Republicans.

“There are some clear lines on the Democratic side,” he said. “But when you’re sit down with these guys, education is one of the first things that come out of their mouths.”

seizing the moment

On first day for most Denver schools, gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston calls for better school funding

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston's children listen to him announce his gubernatorial bid. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michael Johnston sent his son Emmett back to school Monday — and sent a message to voters at the same time about one of his longtime causes.

On the first day of school for most Denver students, Johnston recorded a video of his son carting off two large cardboard boxes full of supplies. In the video posted to Twitter, the former state senator called it another example of how Colorado is shortchanging its public schools.  

“People often ask what does it mean to have cuts to the statewide budget to education,” he said.  “Well it means a lot of those bills get passed on to parents and to kids who have to bring their own paper towels, their own wipes, their own crayons, their own boxes.”

Johnston, a national figure in the education reform movement, led an unsuccessful push to increase taxes for schools in 2013.

“We count ourselves lucky,” Johnston said in the video, adding that knows many families in Denver often feel the pinch of buying new school supplies and fees. “We think the state has an obligation to do better.”

Though the governor’s race is in its early stages, back-to-school season is a logical time for candidates to take out education positions. Earlier Monday, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who is also running, released an online ad spotlighting his pledge to expand full-day kindergarten and preschool.