INSIGHTS | Bipartisanship on education commission will serve Polis well – Colorado Springs Gazette

Gov. Jared Polis did something right a couple of weeks ago. He appointed former state Rep. Jim Wilson to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.

The 11-member board was created by the legislature in 1965 to write policy on, well, higher education and enforce it through the state Department of Education. The definition of higher education is changing.

What makes this more remarkable is its remarkable lack of politics. Wilson is a rock-ribbed Republican from Salida. He tends to operate, however, above politics.

“Students across Colorado are Republicans, Democrats and independents. You’re trying to help out the students, not a party,” Wilson told me on a recent call to catch up, since he was term-limited from returning to the General Assembly this year.

I tell him he needs to hunt and fish more and let others do the public service every time I hear about one of his latest do-good missions, of which there are many. He said he has never found it a burden to do all three.

Wilson was an educator for 40 years, the first 26 in his native Kansas and the last 14 in Salida. His tours of duty have included as a classroom teacher, a coach, a principal and a superintendent. He was doing distance learning to help rural students a decade ahead of Zoom calls.

“I wanted my kids to have the same opportunities as kids in big schools,” he explained.

His 5-year-old granddaughter chirped and giggled in the distant background of his Friday afternoon phone call.

“My dad said, ‘The schools were here when I needed to send you kids to school; the schools are already here,’ ” Wilson explained about his commitment. “Somebody paid it forward that it was there. If we’re going to get this thing right for our kids and for our grandkids, some people have got to have things ready to go, so that she has an opportunity to have a job and do all those sorts of things.

“It’s just one of those deals that you’ve got to do your part and offer your input. I don’t want her to be ignored, and right now we’ve got way too many experts and not enough practical people.”

Educational bipartisanship isn’t new — Republican Gov. Bill Owens appointed Democratic Rep. Peggy Lamm in 1999, for one — but the need for bipartisanship is now no less than preserving our union at stake. If those walls come down, the next generation will swing the sledgehammer.

Polis takes education seriously. It’s his signature issue in a basket of priorities. If the governor — any governor — wants results, he wants the right people. Polis wants results.

Polis pointed out how Wilson worked with Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a liberal Democrat from Durango, to pass free full-day kindergarten, the top hope on the governor’s wish list when he took office.

“Free, full-day kindergarten is a game-changer for Colorado families, ensuring that all children across the state, regardless of ZIP code, get a strong start on their education, while also helping hard-working parents save money,” Polis said.

“Jim Wilson’s willingness to work across the aisle for and to stand up for the people of Colorado, especially students, is a textbook perfect example of bipartisanship. He will bring experience and passion to his new work in higher education to help more students achieve degrees and certificates, helping unlock greater earning potential and success for more Coloradans.”

Wilson spoke of the divide that’s existed in public policy for too many years: “Higher ed and K-12, and never, never, the twain shall meet.”

That’s changing. I told you last month about a forum by the Colorado Business Roundtable, the association of the state’s most important business executives. The topic was the changing workplace and the skills Colorado will need and reward in the future.

A four-year college degree isn’t a golden ticket anymore, if it ever was. Toss in the cost and debt, then apprenticeships and trade schools look better and better.

“So, lo and behold, there’s an opportunity to have a voice from the K-12 piece of that,” Wilson said. “And so that’s why I’m looking at it.”

The commission has a big task Wilson is eager to take part in. He pointed to House Bill 1330 in the last legislative session. It does a lot, but the headline is a $51.5 million investment in higher education.

The bill’s main sponsors represent some of the most liberal and conservative voices under the Gold Dome: McCluskie, Democrat Naquetta Ricks of Aurora, Democrat Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada and Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican from Brighton.

“The commissioners, pretty well, are committed that they’re going to do something,” Wilson said. “They’re not going to just sit back and just put together a report. Everyone’s got a report, so there you go.”

This superintendent always did things differently. When he used to hire principals, when he was a superintendent, he didn’t put a lot of stock in resumes, but in human capital. He asked to speak to a school troublemaker. When that student spoke, Wilson wanted to hear the would-be principal cared and acted fairly.

When educational policy is written with Wilson at the table, you can expect nothing less.