Committee approves teacher-tenure reform

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

A bill changing how teachers earn tenure won approval from the House Education Committee in the wee hours of Friday night.

The committee narrowly passed Senate Bill 191 on a 7-6 vote shortly before 1 a.m. after an eight-hour marathon of passionate testimony from teachers, union leaders, school officials and various interested parties. The decisive seventh vote came from Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, after a week of guarding her position on the bill. Along with the entire committee, Middleton received hundreds of emails and calls from proponents and opponents of the controversial legislation, looking to sway her vote during the days preceding the vote.

“I’ve been getting a lot of feedback on both sides of the issue. A lot of folks who are not constituents reaching out,” she said. “The biggest thing that I’m hearing that they’re concerned about is just the timing of the bill and a lot of people aren’t aware of a lot of the work that was done before it was introduced.”

The educator effectiveness bill, also dubbed the teacher tenure bill, would use a new evaluation system to decide which teachers are protected by non-probationary status, or tenure. The senate passed the bill last week. The measure now travels through a strict schedule of votes in the House in order to reach passage by Wednesday, the final day of the session.

“If the schedule works the way we’re hoping it will… we can go to appropriations on Friday, and either add it to the special orders calendar Friday afternoon or Monday and that would still give us enough time with the Wednesday deadline to get this back with any changes in the senate,” said Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Summit County.

Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, is also a prime House sponsor.

Over fifty people testified on the bill Thursday. Emotions ran high as evidenced by bickering between committee members and tears shed by one who testified.

“This bill means I won’t have the opportunity for due process,” said Lisa Johnson, a Denver Public Schools teacher who cried during her testimony against SB 191. Johnson said she was unfairly placed on a remediation plan by an assistant principal who was biased against her.

“The assistant principal’s decision was rubber stamped by everyone from the principal up to the superintendant. I had had one evaluation at that time,” Johnson said.

An administrative law judge overturned the assistant principal’s decision in a testament to due process that Johnson and Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, fear teachers could lose.

“For those people that don’t perform up to par then that due process section is out,” Solano said while discussing the issue with a staunch critic of the bill, Martha Houser, chief legal counsel to the Colorado Education Association.

Senate sponsor Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, has repeatedly stated that SB 191 will not affect the dismissal process already posted into law. The senate added an amendment last week that insures a teacher’s ability to appeal to the superintendent after an ineffective evaluation. House sponsors also added an amendment for teachers making an appeal in districts without a collective bargaining agreement. The added provision allows an appealing teacher and school officials to mutually agree on a third party to review the appeal.

“It keeps in place whatever the locally bargained agreement is on appeals. What it does is ensure that in any location that might not currently have a collective bargaining agreement or might not currently have an appeal right that that is absolutely provided,” Johnston said. “The purpose of this was to set a strong floor to the fact that everyone would have that appeal right at a minimum.”

If SB 191 passes the state would implement a new evaluation system by the 2013-2014 school years. In that system, 50 percent of a teacher’s rating would be based on multiple assessments including CSAP. A teacher earns non-probationary status after three consecutive years of positive evaluations that display student growth. However, if a teacher earns poor evaluations showing no growth for two years, tenure protection is stripped. The teacher would be given a third year to improve. Principals will also be evaluated, with 50 percent of their evaluations based on their school’s overall growth.

The definition of an “effective” teacher is would be developed by the Council of Educator Effectiveness, created by an executive order from Gov. Bill Ritter in January. SB 191 would codify the council into state law. The bill says the council has until March to deliver its initial recommendations on effectiveness to the State Board of Education

Ben Jackson, an English teacher at the Bruce Randolph School in Denver who testified Thursday, said the bill would add security to his job.

“I believe it empowers teachers,” Jackson said. “Currently we have a system that is broken — a broken system that evaluates teachers almost entirely on subjective measures — and this would insert some more objective measures in student growth into a teacher’s evaluation.”

CEA, the largest teachers union in the state representing over 40,000 teachers, has emerged as the leading opposition to SB 191. Prior to the committee hearing Thursday, CEA sent a press release outlining why the union opposes the bill. It lists its qualms with the bill to include the loss of local control in placing teachers and reducing force by teacher effectiveness levels, the lack of due process for teachers deemed ineffective and the lack of funding for a statewide mandate.

“The members who are contacting me are angry. I have actually never seen them more angry,” said Beverly Ingle, CEA president.

Ingle testified with CEA Executive Director Tony Salazar.

“We believe this bill does create unfunded mandates for districts at a time that budgets are being slashed, classroom resources are being reduced — programs will be reduced and class sizes will increase,” Salazar said.

The bill’s funding is set to come from gifts, grants and donations. According to the bill’s fiscal note, almost $300,000 is required over the next two fiscal years. A new House provision added in committee Friday says that if $250,000 isn’t raised by September 31 of this year, the state Treasurer is required to make up any difference with money from the contingency fund. The provision is seen as a security blanket if Colorado isn’t successful in its phase two bid for $175 million in federal grants in the Race to the Top competition.

Colorado lost in its first phase bid in Race to the Top in March, finishing 14th out of 16 finalists in. SB 191 proponents believe the bill would boost Colorado’s chances in the next phase of grants to be rewarded this summer.

“This is a conversation that we’ve needed to have for a while and we’re going to continue to pursue federal matching dollars or grant dollars,” said Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs.

CEA, which supported the state’s first Race to the Top application, said Colorado won’t be as successful without the union’s support. Union buy-in was one factor out of many in the first round of grants.

“Senate Bill 191 has split the education community for issues not considered by Race to the Top,” said Linda Barker, CEA’s director of teaching and learning, during testimony. “Now Colorado’s Race to the Top phase two application will exclude local associations and CEA, which will have adverse impact on the state’s success factors in phase two.”

State applications for phase two are due in June.

Another union, American Federation of Teachers Colorado, has thrown its support behind the bill. In an announcement Wednesday AFT Colorado president said its support represents what its members want.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re in conflict (with CEA), we’re just representing our members,” said Brenda Smith, Colorado AFT president.

AFT added its support to the bill after negotiating a series of amendments with sponsors, according to Smith.

One of the added amendments requires a school district to consult with at least two staff teachers when hiring a transfer teacher. Another requires districts engaging in staff reduction to take into account a teacher’s effectiveness first and their seniority second.

“This means the bill, with these amendments, can move forward without undermining basic fairness to teachers and with it key purpose intact,” Smith said.

AFT is a small union that mostly represents teachers in Douglas County. Smith said AFT Colorado has over 2,000 members in Douglas and over 3,000 in the state.

The Colorado Association of School Boards, the Department of Education and the Colorado Association of School Executives all support the legislation.

The bill will most likely hit the House floor on Monday. So far it has garnered unanimous support from Republicans and has splintered Democrats into two camps. Gov. Bill Ritter has stated his support and House Speaker Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, is a sponsor.

Rep. Joe Rice, D-Littleton, another bill sponsor, said basing evaluations on growth would level the playing field for teachers in under-privileged schools.

“You have to evaluate teachers who are in like situations. That was one of the faults of CSAP, is you were literally comparing Highlands Ranch High School with North High School. The demographics are different.” Rice said. “Now teachers have incentive to take on more difficult jobs. No matter where they are, whether they’re in Highlands Ranch or North High School, they are evaluated and rewarded based on the situation that they’re in.”

Another group of House Democrats, led by a coalition of former teachers, say the bill was created without input from teachers.

“We’ve spent six years talking about student assessment. We’re spending two weeks talking about teacher assessment. I think that’s inappropriate,” said Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, who originally set to sponsor the legislation but removed her name as it neared introduction.

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com