Denver Principal Among Obama’s Top Education Advisers

Democratic presidential front-runner Barack Obama has tapped a Colorado educator as one of his top advisers on education issues. Michael Johnston, principal of the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts in Denver and a co-founder of New Leaders for New Schools, was named by U.S. News & World Report as one of Obama’s top three education advisers.

Johnston grew up in Vail, the son of hotel owner and former Mayor Paul Johnston, and graduated from the private Vail Mountain School in 1993. After earning his undergraduate degree at Yale in ’97, Johnston taught at a poor rural high school in Greenville, Miss., where he dealt with enormous, unruly classes plagued by poverty and debilitating social issues.

His book on the experience, “In the Deep Heart’s Core,” earned national acclaim and gave Johnston firsthand knowledge of the litany of problems facing public schools in America. After going on to earn a master’s degree in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, Johnston helped launch New Leaders for New Schools, which recruits and trains urban school leaders.

In an article on the Yale Law School’s Web site, Johnston talked about the relationship between law and education.

“There are actually these concentric circles of rule-making,” Johnston said. “The rules the school makes that bind the students, and the rules that the principal makes that bind the teachers, and the rules the state makes that bind the principals and the school districts.

“It was as I started to work my way out through those concentric circles that I got more interested in law, because that was when I realized that law is the last circle. Law sets the boundaries inside which all these events take place.”

In the May 8 U.S. News article Whom the Candidates Listen to on Education, Johnston is listed along with Linda Darling-Hammond, founder of the School Redesign Network, and Christopher Edley, the law school dean at the University of California-Berkeley, who was on a commission that issued recommendations for reforming the No Child Left Behind law.

In his blog on the Web site Real Johnston’s Vail Mountain School classmate Tom Boyd wrote that Johnston joined the Obama campaign a year ago, when the Illinois senator was still a long shot for the Democratic nomination.

“This candidate’s ‘long-shot’ status, I gathered, allowed Johnston and other education gurus the opportunity to think big, think freely, and avoid the snares placed by the ‘usual suspects’ of education policy,” Boyd wrote Monday.

Johnston could not be reached for comment.

is an award-winning reporter who has covered energy, environmental and political issues for years. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and Denver Post. He's founder of Real Vail and Real Aspen.