Colorado Politics news partner Chalkbeat is recirculating this piece from 2016 after the former governor announced that he is running for president in 2020.
Shortly after being re-elected, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper found himself in the middle of one of the thorniest issues the state’s legislature would tackle in 2015: how to reduce the amount of standardized testing while still holding educators and schools accountable.
How the Democratic governor and his team led the conversation toward a compromise — and their insistence on preserving a key piece of the current testing regime — provides a glimpse at how a man being mentioned as vice presidential material thinks about complex education issues.
Hickenlooper already has met at least twice with presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, landing him on the shortlist of serious contenders to be her running mate.
Hickenlooper, 64, brings plenty to a potential ticket as a popular governor from a swing state with a proven bipartisan record, business background and folksy demeanor.
Clinton’s decision is expected to be announced later this week. But first, here are five ways Hickenlooper has helped shaped education policy as Denver mayor and Colorado governor:
The Denver Scholarship Foundation became a reality after Hickenlooper pledged to help some of the city’s poorest students pay for college.
Shortly after being elected mayor, Hickenlooper visited students at Cole Middle School in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The school at the time posted the lowest results on the state’s annual math and English exams. Hickenlooper’s visit was part of a rally to inspire students to do their best on the latest round of tests.
Moved by the students, he pledged to help each one of them find money to go to college if they graduated from high school. That pledge helped make one of Hickenlooper’s policy dreams, the Denver Scholarship Foundation, a reality. The foundation provides needs-based college scholarships to Denver high school graduates, and staffs schools with counselors who help students apply for college and other financial aid.
“I believed, and believe, that if every kid, no matter how poor his or her family, believes he or she really can go to college, kids will work harder in the classroom, which would enable teachers to be more effective,” Hickenlooper wrote in his recently published memoir. “[And] the culture in classrooms and schools throughout the city would improve.”
As mayor, Hickenlooper encouraged now-U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet to lead Denver Public Schools.
Denver’s mayor has no control over the public school system. That’s left to the school board. But Hickenlooper did play an important role in putting the school district, often considered a national model for school reform, on its current trajectory.
In 2006, Hickenlooper suggested his then-chief of staff Michael Bennet apply to become schools chief.
Once appointed superintendent, Bennet went to work putting forth an aggressive agenda to close low-performing schools, open more charter schools and push more pay incentives to teachers who boosted student test scores.
Much of Bennet’s agenda is still alive in DPS today, carried on by his former chief financial officer Tom Boasberg. Bennet is now Colorado’s senior U.S. senator.
Hickenlooper said cutting education funding was one of his most difficult decisions as a new governor. But as a second-term governor, his tone shifted.
Hickenlooper was elected to the state’s highest office in the midst of the Great Recession. As a result, the state’s budget had to be cut drastically.
Hickenlooper’s first budget proposal called for a $332 million cut to the state’s schools. The Denver Post reported that schools would receive about $497 less per student.
“There’s nothing I’ve ever grappled with as long and hard as that,” Hickenlooper said at the time.
However, as Hickenlooper has spent more time in office, his tone has hardened when it comes to school finance.
“When we looked at making the cuts we thought that we should try to share that pain … everybody should feel that constriction. It seems equitable,” the governor told lawmakers last year. His administration did not propose a cut to K-12 funding that year.
Hickenlooper took a political risk to support one of the state’s highest tax increases. He lost.
In 2013, Colorado lawmakers asked voters to raise their property by nearly $1 billion to pump more money into public schools. Supporters of Amendment 66 argued the new revenue would lead to smaller class sizes, more individual attention for students, restoration of programs that have been cut and more.
Despite an aggressive and well-funded campaign, the request Hickenlooper supported was soundly rejected by voters.
“He came out courageously for a big ask,” said state Sen. Michael Johnston, a Denver Democrat who was the architect behind Amendment 66. “He’s done a nice job of seeing the whole picture of education — both that it requires resources and support, but also thoughtful consideration about how to spend those dollars to be most effective.”
Had Amendment 66 been passed, another law that would have significantly changed how funds are allocated to school districts would have gone into effect.
Hickenlooper supported testing reductions. But he had his limits.
Like Denver’s mayor, Colorado’s governor has little sway in how schools are run. But when it came to the 2015 testing debate, Hickenlooper had the most leverage: his veto.
Hickenlooper made clear from start in his State of the State address that he would not entertain a bill that included eliminating testing in the ninth grade.
“It made the framework for the debate,” Johnston said.
And while state Sen. Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, disagreed with the governor’s position, he said he appreciated Hickenlooper’s frankness and one-on-one conversation.
“He allowed that testing bill to happen not only by signing the compromise into law, but by having proactive conversations from the start,” Holbert said.
Both Holbert and Johnston credited Hickenlooper’s administration for the resulting law.
“That was a major tempest,” Johnston said. “He and his office pushed all the way through.”
Part of the law that finally passed includes protections for families who choose to opt out of the state’s tests. That was a primary concern for Holbert, who represents a school district with high opt-out numbers.
“I appreciated Gov. Hickenlooper putting forth the effort for a face-to-face talk about the issues,” Holbert said. “That was something I will always remember and always appreciate.”
This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.