Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who made education the centerpiece of his first term, has won re-election, defeating Republican challenger Heidi Ganahl by a wide margin.
As governor, Polis made full-day kindergarten free to families and passed landmark legislation to create a universal preschool system. He also oversaw two years of major learning disruptions during the COVID pandemic.
On the campaign trail, Polis focused on the positive, pointing out schools have more funding than before, teachers are getting raises, and children are getting a better start. He reiterated those themes in a speech to supporters Tuesday night.
“We created free full-day kindergarten and universal preschool which launches next fall,” he said. “It’s not only important for every child regardless of their background or where they live or who they are to get a strong start, but it also saves families $5,000 a year, and that’s what folks need right now.”
Polis also acknowledged big challenges lie ahead, and he promised to keep working to make Colorado more affordable, including working to address the cost of college.
During the campaign, we asked Polis eight questions about education policy. Below, see how he answered:
What is the most important education problem in Colorado right now and what would you do to fix it?
Every Colorado family should have access to their choice of a high-quality education. My administration has made major progress to improve our schools by increasing per pupil funding by nearly 20%, allowing for reduced class sizes and increased teacher pay, and ensuring that no matter where you live, your kids can attend preschool and kindergarten for free. Our biggest challenge is to ensure that every child has access to a terrific education no matter where they live in Colorado. We need to — and will — do more work to turn around underperforming schools and attract and retain great teachers.
In your current role, what education accomplishment are you most proud of? What does it tell voters about your approach and your priorities?
Successfully delivering a high-quality education for every child is the great passion of my life. I’ve started public charter schools and chaired the State Board of Education. Four years ago, I promised that we’d pass free all-day kindergarten and universal pre-K while increasing funding for our education system. That’s exactly what we did — providing all-day kindergarten and starting soon, free universal preschool as well — to families across Colorado, making it easier for parents to balance their families and their careers while saving families almost $10,000 per child. We also increased per pupil funding for public schools by nearly 20%, a record investment in local schools that is reducing class sizes and increasing teacher pay.
Given that Colorado is a local control state, what is the role of the governor in determining what gets taught in schools or other school policies?
Strong school districts, schools, and educators are the foundation to making sure Colorado has the best education system in the nation. I know how important it is that the state sets a high bar and provides the resources for schools to meet those expectations with accountability for results. It is the role of the governor to ensure that every Colorado kid has a chance to succeed in school and in life. We need to do more work to train excellent teachers, including supporting partnerships between school districts, community colleges, and colleges to ensure that our future workforce needs are met.
Colorado is set to roll out universal preschool in the fall of 2023. What does a successful preschool program look like? How will you ensure the benefits reach the most vulnerable and the program strengthens the early childhood sector as a whole?
Decades of research shows that high-quality early childhood education improves academic achievement, increases graduation rates, and prevents achievement gaps. As a businessman and a dad, I could not think of a better investment in Colorado’s future. The Colorado Universal Preschool Program will adopt nationally recognized best practices to help ensure that children are learning and supported during these critical years for child development, while also supporting parents so that they can work and save money. We got the funding and program in place, and now we’re going to implement universal preschool successfully across our state.
Colorado funds its public colleges and universities at low rates, leading to a higher tuition burden for families. Colorado high school graduates attend college at lower rates than in most other states, limiting their opportunities later in life. What will you do to help more Coloradans access high-quality postsecondary options?
We’re working hard to make high-quality education options affordable and accessible for every Coloradan. Partnering with the legislature, we ensured tuition was kept flat at nearly every public college and university in the state. We followed that up by capping tuition increases at most state colleges at 3% and tied scholarship amounts to the rising cost of attendance. We’re expanding concurrent enrollment opportunities to help high school students decrease the cost of attendance and time to degree. To expand access to higher education opportunities, we provided $44 million to support high-needs school districts and institutions and support innovation.
How will you increase funding to Colorado schools and more specifically raise teachers’ pay?
We can’t have great schools without great teachers, and to do that, we need to increase teacher pay. Ultimately, this is an issue controlled by school districts, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to improve it. The most important step we can take is to increase funding for our schools, which I’ve worked to do consistently as governor. I have also strengthened other programs that help teachers, such as expanding loan forgiveness and making licensing renewal free for teachers. We have more work to do on this issue, and I will continue to advocate for increasing teacher pay.
What does a comprehensive plan for addressing the mental health of our youth look like in a Colorado you are leading?
My administration is working to completely transform what has been an insufficient mental health system for Coloradans and their families. We have created the new Behavioral Health Administration to streamline state services, implemented the free 988 suicide and crisis hotline, and launched the successful iMatter program to provide therapy and drug treatment sessions to Colorado youth — all for free. To date, the iMatter program has already been used by more than 3,300 Coloradans ages 18 and under.
What steps are needed to improve school safety?
Making sure our kids have a safe space where they can learn is a top priority for my administration. We’ve strengthened physical infrastructure in schools through investments in everything from door locks and entrance systems to comprehensive training for school staff on threat assessment and response. Additionally, we have worked to invest in comprehensive behavioral health care support in schools, such as the iMatter program, and have increased school-based behavioral health professionals. It’s also important that a culture of support for all learners exists across our schools, and as governor I will always do my best to set a positive tone.
Bureau Chief Erica Meltzer covers education policy and politics and oversees Chalkbeat Colorado’s education coverage. Contact Erica at firstname.lastname@example.org.