Colorado 2018 election: Where Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton stand on education

Gubernatorial candidates Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton (Colorado Independent photo)

What do the candidates for governor of Colorado think about school funding and school choice? How would they address the achievement gap? And what educational choices did they make for their own children?

We put these questions and more to Democrat Jared Polis and Republican Walker Stapleton, the winners of their parties’ respective primaries last month.

Colorado voters who care about education will have distinct choices in November. The governor has a limited formal role in education policy, but his agenda can shape the legislative process – and limit what’s possible.

Polis, 43, is a five-term congressman from Boulder. An entrepreneur who took his parents’ greeting card company online, Polis went on to found several other internet companies. He previously served on the State Board of Education and founded two charter schools. Polis took 44 percent of the vote in a hard-fought primary in which education played a key role.

Stapleton, 44, is finishing his second term as state treasurer and previously served as the CEO or chief financial officer for a number of private companies. He took 48 percent of the vote in a four-way primary after cultivating the support of both hardliners like Tom Tancredo and members of the Republican establishment.

One of them will replace Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who is prevented by term limits from running again. Democrats have controlled the governor’s office since 2007.

Here’s what the candidates had to say, in their own words.

These responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

About the Candidates

Jared Polis (D)

Jared Polis, 43, represents Colorado’s Second Congressional District, including Boulder and Larimer counties, in Congress. He’s an entrepreneur who took his parents’ greeting card company online. He also founded ProFlowers and helped found the startup accelerator TechStars. He previously served one term on the Colorado State Board of Education and founded two charter schools. He has two children with his partner.


Walker Stapleton (R)

Walker Stapleton, 44, has served two terms as treasurer of Colorado. He attended Williams College, has an MBA from Harvard Business School, and a graduate degree from the London School of Economics. He previously served as the CEO and CFO for several companies, including SonomaWest Holdings. He’s married and has three children.


Tell us about the kinds of schools you went to, what school was like for you, and how that influences your education policy today.


Jared Polis (D)
When I was a young kid growing up, going to school meant getting a great education from teachers that felt valued and supported in their mission to set our kids up for academic success. It meant being able to go to a great college to get a degree and then get a great job earning a living, raising a family, and being able to achieve the American Dream. Somewhere along the way, this stopped being a reality for too many Coloradans. In fact, too many of our kids are growing up seeing their education as a means to no end. Jobs that used to be plentiful and earned through a rigorous K-12 and college graduation are far out of reach, and even earning a skill through a trade school can be a costly option for those who are already struggling to afford the everyday cost of living in the communities they love.

I’ve been proud to work hard for schools my entire career. From starting and running public schools that serve homeless youth and new immigrants, to replacing No Child Left Behind with a better system that gets rid of antiquated federal mandates, my education policies have been informed by a lifetime of fighting for equity, adequate funding, and curriculums that prepare our students for an increasingly global and competitive workforce.


Walker Stapleton (R)
I was very fortunate to attend Williams College for my undergraduate degree, and I continued my studies in graduate school, first at the London School of Economics and then at the Harvard School of Business, where I received an MBA. Like every other student, there were certain subjects that I was good at and others not so much, but I always had a knack for numbers, which is why I pursued a degree, and ultimately a career, in finance. This has led me to look at our education system and ask, “As a society, what is our return on investment for what we put into the education system?” Doing so has led me to the conclusion that Colorado should be getting a much better result on the investment we are making.

When it came time to choose schools for your own children, did you choose private schools? Public schools? District-run? Charter? And why?


Jared Polis (D)
We considered a number of excellent schools of all classifications. In the end, we chose a private school that we believe best meets the unique current needs of our older child. Our younger child is too young for school.


Walker Stapleton (R)
I chose to send my children to a faith-based school because I wanted religion to be a key component of their teaching and upbringing.

If you could make one change to improve K-12 education in Colorado, what would it be and why?


Jared Polis (D)
We need to end decades of shameful underinvestment in our public schools. Our schools rank in the bottom tier of education funding nationwide at the same time our economy is booming. While I’m proud our state’s success led to nearly $150 million in one-time funding for the next school year, we cannot budget year-to-year and expect our kids to have the same academic and economic advantages as students in other states where funding is stable. Our current funding strategy undermines our ability to improve outcomes for students through innovative ideas that often result in cost savings and lower class sizes and give our teachers more opportunity to do what they do best: teach.


Walker Stapleton (R)
I would like to see every parent have a choice in what school to send their child, regardless of income or ZIP code. The quality of our schools varies drastically not just across the state, but sometimes even within a particular school district. That said, one thing has been shown to be certain: Competition in public education works, and no parent should be condemned to sending their child to a failing public school. Period. We need to make improvements for our public schools as well, but I think this is only effective if we take an all-of-the-above approach to education.

Does Colorado need to spend more money on K-12 education? Why or why not? If the answer is yes, where would you get the money?


Jared Polis (D)
Yes, but like many parents, I believe that while more funding is necessary, we can’t just continue to spend money in the same old ways and expect new and improved outcomes for our kids. That’s why I want to proactively take on the School Finance Act, take the politics out of our budget-building, and ensure that we are funding our classrooms in a meaningful way. That means ensuring that the quality of your school isn’t determined by the ZIP code you live in, or that a student receives a subpar education if they have a learning disability. And I strongly believe in the economic and learning power that comprehensive arts, design, and physical education classes can have on retention, readiness to learn, and health.

We need to do a better job of using existing dollars in meaningful ways for our schools, particularly in early education and especially when our state’s revenue forecast provides us flexibility in spending. We can look to partnerships with Colorado businesses interested in making sure our students receive a world-class education that prepares them for the workforce, and, if necessary, by building a winning coalition to go to the ballot box and raise funds for schools. We need to ensure that Coloradans know exactly why we are asking them to raise funds for schools, and I have a track record of getting that done for kids in Colorado as a leader in passing Amendment 23.


Walker Stapleton (R)
I believe we have an issue of prioritization in terms of budgeting for education. According to the Colorado Department of Education, since 2010, the number of students in Colorado has grown by 7 percent, while the number of teachers has grown by 10 percent and the number of school administrators has grown by 22 percent. We need to refocus our budget away from onerous overhead costs and back toward boosting teacher pay, decreasing student-teacher ratios, and getting new technology into the classroom. I think we should allocate more resources to funding K-12 education, but it is critical that these dollars actually make it into the classroom and to recruiting and retaining the best teaching professionals. Business as usual has been failing our kids. Health care and human services funding is crowding out other important initiatives in our state. I would like to see us pass legislation that cracks down on waste and abuse in our health care spending and move those resources toward schools.

About 40 percent of Colorado students score proficient on national (NAEP) exams in English and math, about on par with the nation. Are you satisfied with this, and if not, what would you do to improve those scores?


Jared Polis (D)
No, I’m not satisfied with those numbers. As governor, I’ll have tremendous opportunity to work with the legislature toward ensuring our school spending is focused on improving outcomes, as well as with local school boards in building curriculums and action plans that reflect our modern needs. I believe on top of that critical step, we also must refocus our efforts to be, as JeffCo schools have through JeffCo Generations, learning-centered through customization of the student experience. By emphasizing skills, critical and creative thinking, and agility and adaptability, we can create a more well-rounded education experience for our kids. I strongly believe through a combination of high expectations and improved focus on readiness to learn, we can improve educational outcomes for kids. Additionally, I will work to ensure every student has access to high-speed internet and technology in their schools, particularly in the rural areas where many students lack access to even basic internet service.


Walker Stapleton (R)
Absolutely not. We should not rest until Colorado is a national leader, across the board, in education. A recent study showed that if Colorado charter schools were their own education system, we would lead the entire nation in English and math scores for eighth graders. So I believe we have already laid the groundwork to make this a reality, and we do that by expanding school choice for every parent and child in Colorado. It’s going to take a comprehensive approach, but engaging all stakeholders, building communities around schools and education, and finding the best fit for each student will help us achieve this goal.

How do you suggest narrowing the gap in achievement separating white from non-white students?


Jared Polis (D)
The achievement gap we see exacerbated among students based on race is shameful. I won’t be satisfied until we make real progress on closing our achievement gaps between white students and students of color, and the science and data all show that a quality early childhood education including preschool and kindergarten is the most successful policy to finally close the achievement gap. We also need more equitable funding of our schools that doesn’t put students in wealthier, predominantly white, ZIP codes at an advantage compared to students in low-income areas with large communities of color. But it’s simply not enough to fund schools better. We must also be diligent in ending the cyclical nature of poverty in these areas. Factors such as a lack of upward economic mobility and affordable housing, access to healthcare, as well as the targeted placement of payday lenders in communities of color, have all contributed to lower educational outcomes and lower graduation rates for our kids. It’s unacceptable, and I will not allow this issue to avoid the spotlight when I’m governor.


Walker Stapleton (R)
Charter schools, when compared to traditional public schools, serve a greater percentage of minority and English-as-a-second-language students. So again, I think expanding school choice and holding teachers and school districts accountable for the results they produce is critical to ensure a world-class education for every child in Colorado, regardless of income, ZIP code, race, creed, or religion. Likewise, I think it’s important that we engage these communities outside the classroom, recruit a diverse set of teachers, and work to build better educational outcomes for all students in Colorado.

Should Colorado expand school choice further or do more to restrict it – and how would either be accomplished? Should Colorado use public money for private school vouchers? Should any new restrictions or rules be placed on charter schools?


Jared Polis (D)
Parents value choice in public education, and districts and charter schools offer a variety of options. What I care about is quality. I do not support vouchers going to unaccountable private schools and have opposed for-profit education throughout my entire career. I believe that public charter schools should be held accountable to the same budgetary, academic, and financial transparency as neighborhood public schools. Our top priority must be providing all of our public schools with the resources they need to provide every single Colorado child with a great education.


Walker Stapleton (R)
Colorado should expand school choice to every child and parent in our state. If local school boards refuse to provide options within their district, I would look at ways to encourage the State Board of Education to expand options for students outside of their own district. We need an all-of-the-above approach to education, and this includes charter schools, public schools, and an emphasis on alternative schooling with vocational studies. Let’s not stymie our children’s futures by shoving them into boxes because of entrenched interests.

What changes should be made to Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law?


Jared Polis (D)
Ever since the passage of SB-191, the legislature has come back time and time again to correct many of the mistakes made in its drafting and implementation. From removing hurdles to compliance for rural schools to reducing the number of tests generally, I’m proud that a bipartisan legislature has been able to make some progress righting our policy. We can hold our schools accountable while also helping teachers focus on giving their kids the very best education possible. That’s why I was proud to lead in the rewriting of No Child Left Behind so that we could pass a new law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, which puts more power in the hands of our states and local school boards with fewer mandates from the federal government, and I will reopen the discussion around educator effectiveness to make it work better for teachers, districts, and students.


Walker Stapleton (R)
I think it’s necessary when we design these standards that we work with all stakeholders – teachers, parents, educational experts, employers, and higher education officials – to come up with the best standards for evaluating our students and our teachers. We need to move away from a “teach to the test” mentality, but at the same time maintain measures to gauge how policies are helping kids. The best solution is going to come from this dialogue, and finding new ways to assess teachers and students that don’t put an over-emphasis on standardized testing.

Research indicates the importance of educating and socializing children at a young age, even from infancy. How should Colorado make preschool more accessible to children from poor families? Should Colorado fully fund all-day kindergarten?


Jared Polis (D)
We must provide free full-day preschool and kindergarten for our children and our economy to truly thrive. I believe that we can provide universal preschool for every family much in the same way that the state already does for thousands of low-income students. This is good for parents, too. By allowing them the confidence of free preschool for their child, we can allow parents who choose to do so the opportunity to go back to work to support their family. And I agree with the bipartisan members of the General Assembly who have grappled with funding full-day kindergarten. I believe through a wise use of existing funds, social impact bonds/public-private partnerships, gradual implementation, and going to the ballot box to fill in any funding gaps, we will get full-day kindergarten for every Colorado kid accomplished within two years of my election.


Walker Stapleton (R)
I would like to see more progress made in early childhood education in the state of Colorado. We need to increase access by making our dollars go further for state preschool programs through increasing local community engagement.
Preschool plays an instrumental role in getting students school-ready and closing the performance gap. But ultimately, it all starts in the home. I think we need to partner with allies in the non-profit and private sectors across the state to empower new parents with the tools they need to help their children succeed. This starts with an emphasis on engaging children, reading in the home, and promoting family values.

What would you do to improve graduation rates and better prepare students for college or work?


Jared Polis (D)
I am a strong believer in the ability of dual and concurrent enrollment to dramatically reshape the way high school students prepare and earn degrees from four-year colleges and trade schools alike. By allowing high school students the ability to earn college credits for free while in high school, students can reduce the cost of tuition by thousands of dollars, or even earn an associate’s degree while in our K-12 system. One of the core tenets of my governing will be to make this program more universal in access, and more often taken advantage of by students of all academic aspirations. Additionally, I strongly believe in the implementation of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM)-based education. The arts and design are having tremendous impact on our economy, as a friendly and accessible user interface for everything from apps to websites becomes an evergreen need to be successful in our online spaces.


Walker Stapleton (R)
We need to be proactive and support at-risk students sooner so that they can have the same opportunities as their peers. We should use data on attendance, suspensions, and academic failure to identify the most at-risk students. Dropping out usually doesn’t suddenly happen in a student’s junior or senior year. Let’s identify the signs of a potential dropout early and help get them back on track and sustain that support along the way to graduation. Buddy programs and student/teacher initiatives can be great tools. Additionally, I support creating smaller learning communities in school to help support students.

Another important part of improving our graduation rate is improving our vocational and technical training offerings, starting at the secondary education level. We have plenty students who are not planning to go to college, and their interests and future careers would be better matched by these sorts of programs. We can help get students into high-skilled jobs and technical colleges. We need to move away from a “factory” view of education, where each student comes out with same curriculum, and create alternative paths to empower students for the best outcomes for themselves. I want to emphasize adaptability and transferable skills, whether it be in the arts, sciences, or technical disciplines. Specifically, I would allocate more resources on programs that cultivate partnerships with relevant industries to get more students directly into the work force in high-paying, middle-to-high skill jobs.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Erica Meltzer on July 10, 2018. Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

Photo of Jared Polis (right) by Evan Semón. Photo of Walker Stapleton by Corey Hutchins.


  1. Either one is pretty good for education. One of the biggest factors in successful education is parental involvement and support. You can have the best school in the state and throw dollars at it until you are blue in the face, but if parents are not supportive, the children have a real uphill battle. Getting those children into preschool programs as early as possible is the only solution that I see.

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