Education bill passes committee

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A controversial bill that would alter teacher tenure laws to match a new evaluation system linking student growth to teacher performance cleared its first hurdle Friday. The Senate Education Committee voted 7-1 to send Senate Bill 191, sponsored by Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, to the senate floor for further debate. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, a former teacher and member of the Colorado Board of Education, was the only committee member to vote against the legislation. Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver also expressed substantial concern with the bill’s content even though he cast an affirmative vote.

Committee members were asked to vote on the bill after hearing hours of testimony Wednesday and Thursday in the state capitol’s old Supreme Court Chambers. That was after intense lobbying from both sides all week long.

Early Friday morning, the bill’s chief opposition, the Colorado Education Association, gathered hundreds of teachers outside the Capitol for a rally against the measure. But for the state’s largest teachers union, the ultimate outcome later that day was as dreary as the rainy weather.

For those pushing SB 191, on the other hand, the legislation was deemed historic and unprecedented.

“I think this is something that we can all be proud of when we all look back at this and say this was one of the most significant moments that we’ve been able to accomplish on a bi-partisan level,” said Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, echoed King’s thoughts.

“This is historical and monumental,” Heath said.

SB 191, labeled the “Educator Effectiveness” bill, would establish an evaluation system to reward a teacher with tenure after three years of effective ratings, and it would eliminate tenure after two years of ineffective evaluations.

“We know so much more about how the (teaching) profession works now that it doesn’t make sense anymore to reward (teachers) just for getting older. We ought to reward them for getting better,” Johnston said during committee testimony Wednesday.

The definition of an “effective” teacher has yet to be determined. That job was given to the Council of Education Effectiveness initially created by Gov. Bill Ritter through an executive order in January. Much of the debate posted by the bill’s opposition is whether the council has been given enough time to determine that definition, along with several more charges added through provisions in the bill.

“It’s critical that we define exactly what we mean by effectiveness — it’s all over the board with 178 school districts and local control,” said Beverly Ingle, CEA president.

The council was originally charged with defining teacher effectiveness by the end of the year, and then recommending a new teacher evaluation system to the Legislature in the months following.

Now the council, which will become a legislative council by amendment if the bill passes, would be charged with defining teacher and principal effectiveness, and identifying career ladders for teachers and principals to advance their careers.

Johnston extended the council’s deadline to March 2011 instead of December of this year in order to circumvent concerns that the bill doesn’t allot enough time for the council to complete its charges.

However, even that extension is not enough, testified one council member.

“I am grateful for the amendment to extend the timeline by three months,” said Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association and a Pomona High School teacher, “but I still do not feel that that is enough time for us to accomplish what we need to do — especially in light of the state and district’s budget situations.”

If the Educator Effectiveness bill passes, implementation of the evaluation system and new tenure rules would be not be rolled out until 2015. A beta test of the evaluation system would take place in 2013 and 2014, Johnston said. The evaluation system was originally planned for implementation in 2011 but that was pushed back through the amendment process.

Bill calls for new evaluation system

The bill would establish a new evaluation system basing 50 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation off student growth, to be based on assessments. Principals would also be evaluated with 50 percent of their evaluations coming from teacher effectiveness and student growth.

Special education teachers and teachers in classrooms where 95 percent of students are considered high risk, might be evaluated on a different growth scale. The council was charged with defining effective teachers in those diverse situations by an amendment introduced Friday.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, said the proposed evaluation system wouldn’t work unless standardized tests measure growth in multiple subjects.

“You cannot measure all of student indicators of growth and learning by a paper-pencil test,” Roekel said during testimony against the bill Thursday. “We cannot in good faith use the old system and the old assessments that were not designed to do what they’re asking them to do now, nor do they do that.”

But Johnston countered that basing portions of a teacher evaluation on standardized tests is a necessity.

“I think that assessments are for education what diagnoses are for medicine, which is they give you the best indications of what is going on and what is not going on,” he said.

The bill would also establish an appeals process for teachers who receive an ineffective rating. A decision on the appeal would be left to a district’s superintendent, lawmakers said. The bill would also require a teacher and school to mutually consent on an in-district transfer to avoid unwanted placement.

The CEA unleashed an onslaught of attacks on the bill during committee testimony. Ingle led a charge by CEA members who contested a change to tenure rules, the idea of mutual consent teacher placements, and basing teacher evaluations partly on standardized tests. Above all, the bill’s fiscal note, which will base funding on gifts, grants and donations, raised the most concern.

“We have now identified gifts, grants and donations as the source of funding for this work and I believe that is totally irresponsible,” said Tony Salazar, CEA executive director, during Wednesday’s testimony. “Are we really pinning the hopes of the successful evaluation system on ghost funding?”

Funding concerns engrossed both sides of the debate. Lynn Huizing, president of the Colorado PTA, said gifts, grants and donations may be insufficient to sustain statewide reforms.

“We’re concerned that this bill sets up policy without adequate funding and doesn’t set up the system to support that policy,” Huizing said. The PTA currently opposes the bill.

Mark Sass, a high school English and American History teacher at Legacy High School in Broomfield, supports the bill as a way to professionalize the teaching profession. But during his testimony Thursday, he cited districtwide cuts in Adams 12 School District as a possible detractor.

“Next year $24 million is going to be cut from our budget. That means 10 percent fewer adults and a lot more pressure,” Sass said. “But I believe if you commit to something, you’ll find a way to make it happen.”

On Friday, Hudak suggested an amendment that would strip language from the bill allowing gifts, grants and donations. She suggested leaving the funding questions to the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hear the bill Monday.

“If we want permanent progress going on through the future, then [the bill] should be funded out of the General Fund,” Hudak said.

Johnston said costs for implementing a new evaluation system would be low because the state already allocates money for the current system.

“The intermediate cost is to transfer from one system to the next,” he said.

However, Hudak’s funding concerns mostly lie with developing funds to create new standardized tests, which she said might be several years from actually happening.

John Barry, superintendent for Aurora Public Schools, delivered testimony Thursday — which Spence called powerful — that his district could afford reforms laid out in the bill without requiring any state money

“I’m not asking for any money to be able to do this. I can do that with money that I’ve been allocated even with a $20 million cut this year,” Barry said. Professional development is already a priority in Aurora schools, Barry said. If the bill passes, Barry said the district would just have to pay for training staff implementing the new evaluations.

Barry signed a letter of support for the bill with 22 other metro area superintendents.

Supporters of the bill include Gov. Ritter, former governors

The Educator Effectiveness bill is sponsored by a slate of bipartisan lawmakers in both chambers of the General Assembly. The 18 sponsors in the house and senate are split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

“I thoroughly believe that we have to do this collaboratively and cooperatively if we’re to move forward…” said Sen. Bob Bacon, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “For my friends who have sent me many emails saying, ‘just vote no,’ I’m not going to vote just no, because I have faith in all of us working together toward this.”

The bill also enlists powerful support from a number of past and present high-ranking officials.

Ritter is joined in support for the bill by the three governors who preceded him.

“There have been some powerful changes in the Colorado public school landscape as a result of previous reforms. At this time, no proposal has greater promise for transforming education in Colorado than SB 191,” said Ritter along with former Govs. Bill Owens, Roy Romer, and Richard Lamm in a co-authored piece published in the Denver Post Thursday.

The governors said the bill is a fair response to problems in the education system.

“Evaluations are linked to how much a student has grown, not to their final score, so there is no penalty to teachers and principals who work with struggling students. There are strong provisions to protect local control by letting districts choose assessments without forcing them to spend scarce resources to build them anew,” the governors said in their piece.

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña testified for the bill on behalf of the non-profit group A+ Denver, which places student achievement and school reform as a top priority.

“For the sake of the thousands of teachers and principals who embrace the challenge, who deserve recognition and rewards, let us not delay,” Peña said.

Salazar, CEA executive director, said lawmakers should proceed with caution as many careers are at stake.

“We’re dealing with some issues in this bill that... are locally negotiated in collective bargain agreements that do have an impact on people’s livelihoods,” he said.

Steadman said he struggled with testimony for the bill on Thursday.

“I don’t think it’s right to hook all those hopes on this one bill,” he said. Steadman voted in favor of passing the bill because he said it deserved more debate.

“Frankly I think there probably will be many more amendments we need to debate and consider,” Steadman said.

Hudak’s arguments against the bill Friday echoed positions by the CEA that the real purpose of the bill is to ease the district’s ability to get rid of teachers.

“I find it offensive that showing some teachers as ineffective is going to improve classroom instruction…” she said. “If the real problem is getting rid of bad teachers, we need to discuss a bill to improve teacher dismissal.”

Johnston and Spence rebuke the notion that the Educator Effectiveness bill was introduced to strengthen the state’s chances of netting up to $175 million in federal grants in the next stage of the Race to the Top competition. Colorado finished 14th out of 16 finalists in the first phase of the contest last month. Tennessee and Delaware were the only states to be chosen, but the unsuccessful states have been welcomed to apply for the second phase of Race to the Top in June.

“I’m pleased that this Race to the Top thing didn’t surface very often in these deliberations,” Spence said. “For me it wasn’t about Race to the Top. It’s about the first step in a process that we should be working on.”

“You know why the bill popped up. And it’s the Race to the Top application deadline,” said Lynn Jackson a fifth grade teacher at Eldorado K-8 in Boulder Valley School District. “The Race to the Top component is this 50 percent mandate to standardized testing — there’s no qualified empirical evidence that supports that.

“We need to step back and really look at what’s our goal,” said Jackson. “Is our goal trying to change standardized tests, or is it creating great teachers that creates students who are successful?”

“We’ve made a lot of changes to the bill that responded to CEA concerns that made the bill better,” Johnston said. “Our goal is to do the best policy that’s going to be the best for kids and I think the opponents’ input is getting us closer and closer to that outcome.”

Johnston’s bill is up for Second Reading on Tuesday.

When it gets over to the house, it could find more opposition. For instance, some opponents say the bill doesn’t do enough to assist ineffective teachers with professional development through best practice advice from master teachers.

“Let’s make our teachers stronger. But just doing an evaluation system with no professional development, no time for improvement, no time to figure out what it is we need to do, I believe is barking up the wrong tree,” said Rep. Nancy Todd, D- Aurora, a former teacher.

Todd, who sits on the House Education Committee, was originally slated to co-sponsor the bill in the house with Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs. She dropped her name and support from the bill two weeks prior to its introduction because she said not enough teacher opinion was sought.

“Saying we’re going to change the evaluation system for teachers and that’s going to make sure that kids are more successful, is bogus,” Todd said.

“It’s very disheartening to me to see a piece of legislation this late in the session that is so divisive and is sending our teachers a very unappreciative message,” Todd said.

Merrifield also dropped his name from the bill.

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com