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What drove a Colorado social studies teacher to jump from the classroom to the Capitol

Meghan Lukens, a Democrat, grew up in Steamboat Springs. Lukens, 29, who assumed office on Jan. 9, taught social studies for nearly eight years. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
Steamboat Springs Democrat hopes to improve teacher shortages, mental health support and school safety

Last fall, about 25 Steamboat Springs high schoolers received an unexpected knock at the door. Standing in front of them upon opening it?

Their social studies teacher.

Meghan Lukens wasn’t there to confront her students about poor grades or attendance but instead to campaign for their families’ support in the race to represent Colorado House District 26.

“The students would open the door and be shocked,” said Lukens, who won the November election and in January began representing Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Eagle counties at the statehouse.

Now, the 29-year-old teacher-turned-lawmaker has stepped outside her classroom to practice what she previously taught: how to write a bill and turn it into a law, how to find consensus amid controversy and how to represent constituents effectively at home and under the gold dome.

And as Lukens – who spent most of her childhood in Steamboat Springs and graduated from the same high school where she taught civics, world history and world geography – begins to sponsor legislation, she is advocating to prioritize issues that directly affected her as a rural educator. Her experiences with lack of affordable housing, teacher shortages and turnover, and inadequate education funding mean that she can help steer decisions about how education dollars are spent with a clear understanding of what schools and educators need.

“Our public education system is at a crisis point, but we don’t have to resign ourselves to this reality,” Lukens said. “Public education is resilient. Educators are working through an impossible situation but still managing to change the lives of Colorado students.”

That crisis is fueled, in part, by lack of funding, teacher shortages, increasing politicization and not enough mental health resources, Lukens added, noting that teachers see each issue play out firsthand.

“Having a seat at the table where decisions are being made about our profession is crucial,” she said. “Teachers are the boots on the ground on a day-to-day basis educating our children.”

Before Lukens traded in long days in her classroom for equally long days at the Capitol, she was guiding her students through mock Supreme Court trials and mock Congress and tuning into Supreme Court arguments and nominations as well as inaugurations.

The former social studies teacher taught history while living through a particularly tumultuous chapter of it but still never shied away from pursuing office herself. Lukens, who can remember wanting to be a teacher as far back as third grade, began her career abroad after graduating from the University of Colorado, majoring in history and getting licensed in secondary social studies education.

She taught American history and American government along with psychology and sociology at the American School of Kosova in Pristina, Kosovo. There, Lukens realized how much people in other countries are invested in American politics.

She remembers watching U.S. presidential election results live in class in 2016, having voted as an expatriate, and shortly after joining a women’s march in Kosovo that drew international attention.

Lukens remained engaged in politics when she moved back to Colorado after a year abroad and began posing a pair of questions to students in her classes that she has also contemplated for herself: As a student, how can you be politically and civically engaged? How does understanding our political systems help you to be engaged?

Light filters through the dome of the Colorado State Capitol as the 2022 legislative session opened Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

Those questions have been a springboard for Lukens, who taught at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette before Steamboat Springs High School and who positioned her campaign around what she sees as an urgent need to expand the number of teachers through the legislature.

Lukens, who also completed a master’s degree in leadership in educational organizations with a principal’s licensure at the University of Colorado Denver, said she has watched as colleagues have stepped away from teaching in Colorado because they couldn’t find child care or they could make more money as an educator in another state or they could earn more in another profession that is arguably less stressful.

She’s seen educator and support staff positions in her high school, across Steamboat Springs School District and in other schools throughout the district she represents remain unfilled, leaving schools grappling with shortages. She knows teachers who work multiple jobs and educators who struggle to secure affordable housing. Lukens, herself, rents an apartment in Steamboat Springs with a roommate – a Spanish teacher from Steamboat Springs High School – because homes in the area are too pricey while teacher pay in Colorado is among the lowest nationwide.

“That is felt acutely in our rural areas and our resort rural areas where cost of living is very high … and we have an affordable housing crisis,” Lukens said.

One of her major priorities, along with some of her fellow lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis, is to pay down the debt that Colorado owes schools after it adopted the budget stabilization factor in the wake of the Great Recession. The budget tool allows the General Assembly to allocate to schools each year less than what they are owed. For the current school year, lawmakers owe schools $321 million.

“The number one determining factor for student success is the teacher in the classroom,” said Lukens, who is serving on the House Education Committee. “And so students are successful when the teacher is successful, and the teacher is successful when the students are successful. And our goal … is that we have the highest quality education system for our students, and in Colorado we have such an underfunded education system that is holding us back from achieving the highest quality education system that we possibly can.”

The state hopes to make another record investment in public education this session after it reduced the state’s debt owed to schools to the lowest it has ever been last year, Lukens said. She wants to see the funding momentum continue so that schools and districts have the money to attract and retain teachers, meet the mental health needs of students and teachers, and make schools safe.

Connecting both history and politics back to people

Lukens adds to a cadre of Colorado lawmakers who bring experience in education to their legislative work this session, said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat who previously taught English and journalism at Durango High School for two decades.

Tapping into that experience has become critical at the Capitol, she said.

Many people assume that just because they have been to school, they’re qualified to understand what schools need, McLachlan said, joking that most people have consulted a doctor at some point in their life, but that doesn’t mean they are qualified to practice medicine.

“You have to have a lot of passion, and you have to have a good work ethic,” she said. “There’s more to being a teacher than just having graduated from a school.”

McLachlan is encouraged that Lukens was in the classroom less than a year ago, particularly in a rural part of the state.

“It’s right at the front of her brain, what teaching is like,” McLachlan said.

“She knows exactly who she’s working for,” she added. “It’s the teachers she taught with last year, and I think that makes a difference.”

One of those teachers is Deirdre Boyd, who Lukens first had in an AP U.S. history class while a student at Steamboat Springs High School before later teaching across the school campus from Boyd.

Lukens’ love of history sprouted during high school when Boyd taught lessons with far more than textbooks. She remembers Boyd crying when she walked her class through Lewis and Clark’s expedition and belting out the tunes of a historical musical.

“Her passion for history lit the spark for me because she brought history to life,” said Lukens, who became her former teacher’s full-time colleague in 2021, about 10 years after graduating from the school.

Boyd still teaches AP U.S. history, American history and civics at the high school with a career in education that has spanned 28 years. Lukens’ excitement for history is seared in her memory.

“I remember very distinctly that she was jumping out of her chair kind of on a daily basis,” Boyd said, adding that the enthusiasm she brought to class helped motivate other students.

And Lukens had a “passion for the empathetic piece of history that can get left behind sometimes,” Boyd said, noting that she would often think through how historical moments affected people and the connections those moments have to today.

Lukens’ approach to history in many ways mirrors her approach to policymaking as she understands how decisions at the Capitol will impact educators and students across the state with the kind of firsthand perspective needed at the legislature, Boyd said.

“We need more teachers running for office … (and) more educators going into the political arena to advocate for our students,” she said.

Boyd knocked on doors for Lukens’ campaign and cried when her former student won office. She sees Lukens as a leader who can bridge political divides in her community and advocate for education with a deep understanding of how “absolutely dire the circumstances are that just seem to get overlooked.”

Lukens can take her experience teaching into conversations about budgets and funding allocations and double down on prioritizing students, Boyd said.

“You have to have somebody who can hold fast to what matters,” she said, “and that’s our young people, our children.”