Creating a Winning Legislative Campaign: The Colorado Story

 What better person to write a case study of SB 191 – Colorado’s groundbreaking
teacher evaluation legislation – than the legislative director for Mike
Johnston, the state senator who shepherded it through to passage? Scott Laband
describes the political, policy, and messaging elements that were essential for
the legislation’s ultimate success:

  • “Finding
    strong and credible leadership
    .” Sen. Johnston, a former Teach for America teacher
    and principal, had the credentials to lead the charge. Selecting the right
    co-sponsors with enough expertise to ward off amendments to the bill’s key
    provisions was also crucial.
  • “Getting
    the policy right.”
    SB 191 started by “identifying the flaws of the existing
    teacher and school leader evaluation system.” It was a pro-teacher piece of
    legislation that overhauled several things at once rather than in piecemeal
    fashion (evaluations, tenure, placement, and reductions in force – with the
    former informing the latter three). Laband also points out the importance of
    compromises on non-vital amendments, and “rotating political cover” so that no
    single lawmakers had to go against his/her own caucus too many times.
  • “Building
    a powerful coalition.”
    To rally the support necessary to upend a deeply
    entrenched teacher personnel system, proponents crafted a concept paper early
    on in the process, identified any and all potential partners (including the
    civil rights community), and garnered support especially among teachers
    themselves. The process for creating the coalition sounds arduous, but the
    brief is compelling in describing its necessity.
  • “Coordinating
    broad based advocacy.”
    Chief among advocacy strategies was raising money,
    maintaining a strong web presence, and implementing a sophisticated lobbying
  • “Controlling
    the message.”
    The campaign around SB 191 was unwaveringly pro-teacher, and
    framed the legislation as helping solve the problem
    of the achievement gap (rather than portraying ineffective teachers as the main
    obstruction). Key components of messaging included: polling data, success
    stories of students and teachers, dispelling “myths,” and “rewarding
    champions,” (DFER raised $500k alone for Democrats who voted for the bill).

That Democrats led the charge to pass Colorado’s SB 191
certainly “defies conventional political wisdom.” That reality alone holds
lessons for the Buckeye State, as lawmakers typically have a hard time breaching
the partisan divide – especially when it comes to K-12 education policy. 

 Creating a Winning Legislative Campaign: The Colorado Story
Democrats for Education Reform
Scott Laband