Obama education advisor Johnston joins race for Groff’s Senate seat

Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts principal Michael Johnston.
Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts principal Michael Johnston.
Should Michael Johnston, a white, Harvard- and Yale-educated school principal who grew up in the ski town of Vail, really have a shot at being appointed to the state Senate in one of the most ethnically diverse districts in Colorado?

“That’s a very important and a very deep question, and I thought a long time about it before I made this decision, because I do think it’s important that there’s diverse representation in the Senate,” said Johnston, who’s vying to replace Senate President Peter Groff — the first African American to ever hold that position in Colorado.

Groff earlier this month was tapped by the Obama administration to head the U.S. Department of Education’s Faith-based and Community Initiatives Center. A 150-member Democratic vacancy committee will select Groff’s successor May 11. So far, three other candidates besides Johnston have emerged, according to the Denver Direct blog: Mateos Alvarez, Anthony Graves and Rosemary Marshall.

“People have said, ‘This is a historically black seat that you’re running for,’ and what does that mean?” Johnston told the Colorado Independent. “I feel like part of the lesson that we learned from the Obama race is that now in America every seat is a black seat, which is to say every seat is open to an outstanding candidate regardless of their race.”

Johnston, 34, who attended the private Vail Mountain School and is the son of a former Vail mayor, was one of President Obama’s top three education advisors during the 2008 campaign. After earning his undergraduate degree at Yale in ‘97, Johnston taught at a poor rural high school in Greenville, Miss., which resulted in his book, “In the Deep Heart’s Core.”

After earning his master’s in education from Harvard and a law degree from Yale, Johnston returned to Colorado to help found the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA) in Thornton, where he’s currently the principal. MESA made national headlines when Obama visited the school in May and praised Johnston and his staff for graduating all 44 seniors and placing them in four-year colleges.

The school’s curriculum emphasizes the arts in teaching other core subjects to a student body from a largely poor and urban area with a high number of recent immigrants. Johnston said MESA is once again poised to have a nearly 100-percent graduation rate for its current senior class of 54, with most of them accepted to four-year colleges.

One of the reasons he cited for seeking the SD 33 seat is the recent failure in the Senate of a tuition equity bill that would have allowed undocumented students to receive in-state tuition. He would like to see that bill reintroduced next session and passed by the full legislature.

“It’s been a big issue for my kids in Mapleton,” Johnston said. “We have a number of kids this year who were literally holding college acceptances in hand and banking on that bill passing so that they’d be able to afford to go to college and now are likely not going to go.”

Johnston said he’d also like to continue the work of Groff and House Speaker Terrance Carroll — whom he said he’s worked with in the past on education issues — when it comes to school choice, innovative programs and the overall fight for more education funding.

“They’ve generally supported the idea of quality public school choice, the idea of being able to help create magnet schools or charter schools that really support kids who weren’t being successful in traditional schools,” said Johnston, a resident of Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood.

“And we want to do everything we can to not cut educational funding in these economic times, because we know that ultimately high-quality education is the engine for long-term economic recovery.”

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