State Sen. Mike Johnston joined a group of well-known and influential leaders in the world of education when he was recently named one of the “Top 10 People Changing Education As We Know It.” Education Top Ten listed “some of the major players in education around the world, whose contributions may change education for decades to come.”
Johnston was recognized for his work as a state legislator and as a policy adviser to New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit for education reform. He was also named to Forbes Magazine’s list of Most Influential Educators for his work on Colorado’s Great Teachers and Leaders Law. Among the other top 10 leaders were Diane Ravitch (a leading advocate for public education), Geoffrey Canada (renowned for his work helping children and families in Harlem), Malala Yousafzai (a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate) and Joshua Wong (founder of Scholarism, the group that defended Hong Kong’s education policy from China’s interference).
Johnston says the group of 10 is just an informal network, “but we do all try to lean on each other when you hit rough spots so we can try to solve our problems together.”
Education will always be his first passion, says Johnston, and he believes that it is a tool to fix the major problem of inequality. But, he adds, education is influenced by many other factors: housing, health care, access to healthy food. “Education is inextricably bound to a number of other really important social issues that I get the chance to work at in the legislature.”
Johnston has one more term in the legislature and is thinking about issues he might tackle. The capital construction fund for school facilities is empty now, so no more new schools can be built without funding this program, presenting a significant problem for smaller rural school districts with a low tax base. In higher education, Johnston says access to and completion of college are a big challenge for low-income kids. He’s pondering possible ways young people could commit to service for the state—civil, military or disaster relief—as a way to help finance college in the same way the G.I. Bill did.”
Johnston talks about how the Stapleton-Park Hill enrollment zone brings diverse people together. “That’s a really bold idea. But if you look at northeast Denver, you have the makings of a perfectly integrated school district. I think that’s a profound issue and one that we actually have a real chance of making an impact on in Denver, and one we’re making good strides on. Because that’s where relationships are formed, right? That’s the 4-year-old birthday parties you go to, the 7-year-old football teams kids play on, and all those things.”
Johnston believes strongly in the value of interconnectedness. The night of the Charleston shooting he couldn’t sleep. “I felt this deep sense of not wanting to leave that as the last word for all my friends in the black community who were going to wake up tomorrow morning to that image of, ‘We opened our church to a white stranger who walked in, and the result was he murdered nine of our members.’ It was really important to me that black churches around the country woke up the next day and felt like they had an overwhelming show of support from their white neighbors and white communities and white faith leaders.”
Johnston says he thought specifically of Rev. Tyler at the Shorter AME Church and how difficult that night must be for him. He stayed up and wrote his thoughts, drove to the church in the night, and taped it to the door so the first thing Rev. Tyler would see in the morning was a note that said, “We love you, we’re with you, we won’t stand for this.” News coverage of Johnston’s note was followed by similar actions all around the country.
At a service at the Shorter AME Church after the Charleston shooting, Johnston observed, “There were probably 500 people there—every faith and domination, from the Sikhs to Jewish and Christian faiths. You sort of had everybody in the room there—hundreds of kids and families. Those kids are never going to be able to grow up with misperceptions.”
“The solution to this to me seems we have to all pull each other closer because the more of a personal relationship you have, the harder it is to be able to do something so unimaginable like that. I think the real hope here is we have to all work a little harder to knit these communities together because that’s the real way you avoid this. Once you know people in the flesh, it’s much harder to hate.”