Education bill ignites fierce feud

Supporters say bill is needed for second Race to the Top bid

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A controversial education bill introduced last Monday has incensed Colorado’s largest teacher union and could splinter the state’s chances at earning a large federal education grant this summer.

The bill, Senate Bill 191, introduced April 12 by co-sponsors Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, would alter Colorado’s teacher tenure system, establish the parameters for a teacher and principal evaluation system and add several charges to the Governor’s Council of Teacher Effectiveness. “This will reform our teacher tenure system so that non-probationary status is earned only when a teacher demonstrates strong and consistent performance,” Spence said. “Tenure will also be a privilege that can be lost based on consecutive years of ineffectiveness.”

But the linkage between the bill and Colorado’s upcoming bid in the second phase of Race to the Top has initiated a political war between the Colorado Education Association (CEA) and the Colorado Department of Education (CDE).

CEA President Beverly Ingle criticized the bill as too much too fast.

“No one is more interested in improving educator effectiveness and evaluation than the 40,000 members of the Colorado Education Association. But Sen. Johnston’s bill interferes with current collaborative efforts,” Ingle said.

The CEA and CDE feud began developing after CDE Commissioner Dwight Jones’ article “Finishing the Race to the Top” was published in Monday’s Denver Post. Jones contended that the legislation would boost Colorado’s chances in round two of Race to the Top, a federal education grant program. Tennessee and Delaware were the only states to win grants in the first round of Race to the Top a couple of weeks ago, with Colorado finishing 14th out of 16 finalists.

“Critics in fact chide Colorado, speculating that had the Tennessee-like bill already been introduced, Colorado would have had a fighting chance,” Jones wrote in his commentary, pointing to similarities between Johnston’s bill and one Tennessee lawmakers passed prior to winning the grant. “I believe passing a new state law addressing teacher effectiveness might boost our chances in the second round.”

Gov. Bill Ritter announced last week that Colorado would apply in the second round of Race to the Top’s. The state is eligible to receive up to $175 million over four years, but the odds of the state finishing on top may be damaged by the union’s lack of support.

On Tuesday, CEAs Executive Director Tony Salazar wrote a letter to Jones declaring CEA won’t help the state in round two because the commissioner’s article “threw teachers under the bus.”

“Now that the Phase 1 results have been released, it has become fashionable to label the CEA as the scapegoat for the state’s 14th place finish,” Salazar said. “Your Denver Post commentary shows that you have joined Senator Johnston on the bandwagon of blaming teachers and their professional association for Colorado’s Race to the Top shortfall, instead of focusing on all areas of the state application that need improvement for Phase 2…

“As long as you are tying Colorado’s Race to the Top success to Senator Johnston’s legislation, we are unable to remain partners in the Phase 2 effort,” Salazar said.

In response to Salazar’s letter, Jones released a statement to The Colorado Statesman on Thursday.

“I appreciate the Colorado Education Association’s concerns about Senate Bill 10-191 but will continue to look for opportunities to collaborate with the union leadership on the development of the state’s new system for measuring, supporting and improving teacher effectiveness,” Jones said. “While the timeline to pass this legislation is somewhat abbreviated I believe a solid plan will emerge, including reasonable deadlines for ironing out details, if we work together.

“This is the right conversation and we hope to engage the voices of as many classroom teachers as possible in developing the new system that will be used to evaluate the quality of their work,” he added.

Tennessee and Delaware scored 93 percent and 100 percent of support from local unions respectively in their first round bids. Colorado, on the other hand, garnered just 43 percent, according to data compiled by the state.

Round two applications are due in June. Tennessee and Delaware are not eligible to reapply, but it’s likely that the dozen or so other states that competed in the first phase will send in a second application.

Deborah Fallin, CEA spokeswoman, said Johnston’s bill compromises the work of the Council of Teacher Effectiveness, which was created by executive order in January by Ritter and charged with defining what an effective teacher is and recommending a high-quality teacher evaluation system.

“[Johnston] talks about things in some broad overarching ways when there’s no foundation for them,” Fallin said. “The foundation is what’s missing. The foundation is what the council needs to do.”

Ingle said Johnston’s bill doesn’t do enough to improve the state’s chances in Race to the Top.

“Senator Johnston and Education Commissioner Dwight Jones are saying that passage of this bill is necessary for Colorado to win Race to the Top funds in phase 2,” Ingle said in a statement released Monday. “We disagree. Colorado lost points in all six sections of its application. To claim that addressing part of one section will make the difference is irresponsible.”

“The teacher union tantrum over this bill threatens $175 million for Colorado schoolchildren and classrooms,” Spence countered.

“…The Obama Administration has made it very clear union buy-in matters as much or more than the nature of the state’s reforms. Without union support, Colorado very well may lose the second round, even though the state’s policy reforms are strong,” Spence said.

“That doesn’t seem to matter much to union members, who are using taxpayer funded Association Leave Days to head to the Capitol to lobby against SB 191,” Spence continued.

“Its certainly not right taxpayer money is being used to undermine the public education system. K-12 must not be as underfunded as the teachers union claims if they are going to this much trouble to block a bill and a grant application that would wholly benefit Colorado schools,” Spence said Friday.

Fallin said CEA might be able to still support the state’s application in round two of Race to the Top if Johnston’s bill is not a factor.

“As long as Race to the Top and Senate Bill 191 are intertwined we are not able to support the Race to the Top effort,” she said. “If those become unlinked, we may be able to reconsider that decision, but at this moment, in this political climate, that’s where we are.”

During a Monday press conference where Johnston and other co-sponsors announced the legislation, Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, a prime House sponsor on the bill, hinted it would be difficult to advance the bill without teacher support.

“We continue to have conversations with our teachers, both within the teachers union — CEA — but as well out in the field, because we can’t get there from here without our teachers behind us,” Scanlan said. “And ultimately this bill is a bet on our teachers. We’re saying there’s nothing more important to the future of education than having a highly motivated, highly qualified teacher in the classroom in front of a group of students.”

Johnston said he initially planned to introduce the bill before round one of Race to the Top, but it was too massive to rush. He said Monday this is “the right bill at the right time,” but added that Race to the Top is not a determining factor for the bill’s success.

“We think that it would be a great opportunity for us to receive some additional funding to support some of the work we’re undertaking, but this bill was heading forward with or without Race to the Top.”

After speaking with Johnston Wednesday, the seven-member CDE board of education voted unanimously to support SB 191.

“Thank you for persevering and getting it here,” said State Board Vice-Chairman Randy DeHoff in a department news release. “If we don’t take this step now, I don’t think we ever will.”

Board member Jane Goff added, “Kudos for getting the topic off the ground. [This issue] is something that needs to be dealt with.”

Johnston’s bill would establish two major components: an evaluation system for teachers and principals, with 50 percent of teacher evaluations based on student achievement and 66 percent of principal evaluations based on student achievement and teacher effectiveness; and a system which would grant tenure to teachers exhibiting three consecutive years of demonstrated effectiveness, or strip tenure from teachers after two consecutive years of poor evaluations.

The bill would also require mutual consent between teachers and school leaders before teacher placement in a school.

The idea that 50 percent of teacher evaluations should come from student achievement came from Ritter’s executive order establishing the Council of Teacher Effectiveness in January. Ritter has yet to take a definite position on the bill, only saying through spokeswoman Megan Castle that it “codifies the work of the council.”

A large part of Johnston’s bill hinges on the work by the council, which was originally charged with developing definitions of teacher effectiveness by the end of 2010.

“Once that’s been done,” Johnston said, “we think it’s important that then we use that definition to help make the important decisions we make throughout an educators career.”

The bill also requires the council to make recommendations to establish how principals and teachers can gain access to career ladders based on demonstrated effectiveness, Johnston said.

The council has until September of 2011 to make further recommendations on a teacher evaluation system. Its next meeting is scheduled for April 21.

Fallin said the bill is better suited for introduction a year from now, after the council has reached more clarity on its recommendations.

“The council should be able to do its work in a reasonable period of time. Having it all to be done — everything — by this December, is too fast,” she said. “We want a good evaluation system that teachers can believe in. We have to have a credible system before we can start into determining pay, determining promotion, determining dismissal, professional development.”

Ingle will testify against the bill when it’s introduced in the Senate Education Committee next week.

“At this point, we do not see much that could be tweaked to fix it because what we firmly believe (is) the council needs to do its work,” Fallin said. “(Johnston)’s adding things to the council’s charge, he’s speeding their timeliness and kind of undermining the process that the governor has laid out.”

Committee officials said the hearing on the bill would begin Wednesday and continue into Thursday to accommodate lawmakers’ schedules.

Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, chair of the Education Committee, said he hasn’t lost hope in gaining CEA support on portions of the bill.

“I think probably our amending process can garner some CEA support or at least mitigate their strong opposition,” Bacon said.

The bill has received a remarkable amount of early bipartisan support at the capitol. Half of the 18 sponsors in the house and senate are Republicans. All three Republicans on the Senate Education Committee — Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, and Spence — are listed as sponsors on the bill. Four Republican members of the Education Committee in the House are also sponsors.

“Democrats and Republicans understand that to improve the education system, we must have the best possible teachers we can have,” said House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, a sponsor on the bill.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, has not said whether he supports the bill, but will serve as a moderator on the issue. Shaffer called the bill the capstone of the session.

“This legislation is not only important for improving our schools but it’s something we’d like to tout for round two of Race to the Top,” Shaffer said.

The bill has also received support from a long list of advocate groups including the Colorado Children’s Campaign, Education Reform Now, Colorado Concern, Democrats for Education Reform and Padres Unidos, among many others.

Johnston, a former educator in the Mapleton Public School District in Adams County, didn’t specify what the other half of a teacher’s evaluation would depend on.

“You’ll have to show real achievement in the areas of academic student growth from a variety of measures — not just the CSAP test — a variety of measures that are fair in evaluating our teachers in order to be a teacher considered for tenure,” he said. “And you have to continue to show that you are an effective teacher in order to keep tenure. I think those are important pieces of accountability.”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com