Denver's John Hickenlooper

February 25, 2008 AT 3:00 AM
By Stephen Goldsmith  |  Contributor
Professor of practice at the Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Innovations in American Government Program

As we continue our examination of city hall leadership, this week's focus is on a mayor who has adopted a project not normally under his jurisdiction and who has driven it to completion based on his understanding of its importance to his city.

We are speaking of Mayor John Hickenlooper of Denver, who recently launched a Pre-K Stipend Program aimed not only at improving Denver's education system but also at benefiting the city as a whole. In 2003, Hickenlooper campaigned with the rallying cry: "Because all kids deserve an equal start in life." Once elected, he delivered on the promise by applying his leadership talents and political capital to improving childhood education.

"Education is absolutely the key to our future," explains Hickenlooper. "Ensuring that Denver parents have access to quality affordable preschool for their children is a critical part of improving our public schools, increasing economic opportunity, and reducing burdens on our public safety and criminal justice systems."

Despite supporting research on preschool's importance in closing income gaps and its potential to solve other urban challenges, two ballot initiatives introduced by Hickenlooper's mayoral predecessors did not pass. Voters did not view such initiatives as falling under the purview of city responsibilities. Hickenlooper decided to take an alternative approach, which involved the business community in the very first steps of the program's development. An entrepreneur himself with experience creating a successful restaurant chain, Hickenlooper understood that these leaders could create the strongest business case for improving childhood education that would in turn garner Denver citizen approval.

From a list of more than 300 names, Hickenlooper recruited 40 civic and business leaders who would champion improving early childhood education and who represented diverse industries and backgrounds. Many of the team members had strong relationships with the Denver community, including the Chamber of Commerce and the state legislature. The Mayor's Leadership Team first convened in January 2004 at a summit on early childhood education, and continued to meet for monthly breakfast sessions for over two years. From the start, Hickenlooper established clear objectives for his team:

o Groundwork: Develop a strong economic rationale for advancing early childhood education programs in Denver and delineate the range of potential benefits to the city.

o Scope: Unlike the failed programs of the past, whose goals were too broad, create a narrowly defined program with pre-established goals.

o Timing: This was to be a marathon, not a speed race. Members were to provide meticulous evaluation of possible programs and answer to any holes in the plan.

In each session, the team assessed a range of proposals; analyzed why previous Denver ballot initiatives had failed; reviewed other state programs; established metrics to evaluate program quality; and incorporated the testimony of a range of field experts including economists, academics, and childcare providers.

Only when the Leadership Team met his goals did Hickenlooper invite education providers and advocates to join in the sessions. The postponed invitation to the provider and advocacy community was strategic and intentional. Hickenlooper had realized, from his review of previous proposals, that involving this community too early in the research process could unnecessarily stall program development before its focus was firmly established. The full task force concluded meetings in June 2006, with a fine-tuned Pre-K Stipend Program that won voter support in November 2006.

Financed by a 0.12 percent increase in Denver's sales tax rate, or 12 cents on every $100 purchase, the Pre-K Stipend Program makes preschool affordable to all Denver 4-year-olds. The sales tax increase raises an estimated $12 million per year, which funds subsidies for preschool tuition and supports enhancements to existing preschool programs. Tuition subsidies are based on income level. Low-income families receive an average subsidy of 70 percent of preschool tuition, while high-income families receive up to 5 percent.

Unlike some other programs, Denver's takes a market-based approach to preschool choice. Parents can choose from a host of state-licensed preschool providers, including home- and school-based programs as well as programs run by faith organizations. Providers must participate in a quality improvement plan to receive funding. To provide a high level of transparency and accountability to taxpayers, the program includes built-in reporting metrics.

Throughout the preschool initiative's development, Hickenlooper remained steadfast in his commitment to his initial goals. He attended every session and listened carefully and thoughtfully to each proposal the Leadership Team brought before him. "In many respects, he was a naysayer," recalls María Guajardo, executive director of the Mayor's Office for Education and Children. "He wanted to build a bulletproof program and raised hard questions throughout the sessions."

Hickenlooper's presence and inclusive management style were instrumental to the program's development. For example, when the Leadership Team encouraged Hickenlooper to bring its preschool proposal before voters in 2005, the mayor pushed back, arguing the timing was not appropriate. "Nothing is an accident with the mayor," explains Guajardo. "He is completely aware of the pulse of the Denver public." Hickenlooper knew the proposal would compete with other student-focused initiatives on the 2005 ballot. His strong sense of timing and context in this incident, and throughout the planning process, proved invaluable in securing voter support in 2006.

Throughout the three-year process, and even now, Hickenlooper has maintained an unwavering dedication to the promise of improving education for Denver's youngest citizens. He understood that leadership is not just about strategic program development and monthly meetings. It required business acumen, a strong understanding of context for policy initiatives and a connection to the daily concerns of the community. Because of his sensitivity to these issues, Hickenlooper continues to visit preschools, elementary, middle, and high schools across Denver on a weekly basis to talk with young people and teachers alike about their school experiences, and to listen to their suggestions for improving Denver's education system. As a father of a young kindergarten student, he knows firsthand every parent's desire to provide a better tomorrow for their children. Thanks to the Denver Pre-K Stipend program, more Denver parents have that opportunity than ever before.

To learn more about Denver's preschool program, please visit: I welcome your suggestions and feedback throughout the series. E-mail me at

Series introduction: Lessons from Our Best