Teacher-tenure bill credited with education reform

By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, embraced both his parents in a victorious hug at the State Capitol after his momentous educator effectiveness bill gained final passage in the Senate Wednesday. Only a few feet away, ardent opponents of the bill, Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, engaged in an emotional hug after defeat in a long and straining battle.

Like the teachers whom it would soon affect, Senate Bill 191 struck an emotional divide between Democrats since its controversial introduction last month.

“The person who brought the bill (Johnston) to the senate is the guy who shares an office with me and we don’t hold anything against each other personally, but it really has ripped the Democratic Party,” Hudak said.

The bill’s premise — tying teacher tenure to student performance on assessments including CSAP — earned unanimous Republican support in its rocky path through the Legislature.

“[Republicans] think the school system needs to bend toward putting children’s needs first, not adult’s employment needs first,” said bill supporter Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield.

SB 191 was only able to pass out of the House with the backing of a few key Democrats and supporters.

“I think anguish would be one word to describe it — the amount of opposition and it’s heartfelt opposition,” said Rep. Kathleen Curry, U-Gunnison, who voted in favor of the bill. “For me, really it’s been a challenge to reconcile that with what I feel is right in terms of policy.

“I’d say this one ranks up there with one of the biggest votes that I’ve cast the six years I’ve been here.”

The so-called teacher-tenure bill passed the House 36-29 Tuesday after a series of potentially threatening parliamentary maneuvers, including a brief filibuster by Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood. On Wednesday, the Senate accepted House amendments by a vote of 27-8 and sent the bill to Gov. Bill Ritter, who has said he will sign the bill.

“This is an amazing day in the state of Colorado,” Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, told his colleagues before approving the measure. Recognizing history being made, Harvey attained autographs on a copy of the bill from both Senate sponsors, Johnston and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

Johnston, a former principal in Mapleton Public Schools in Adams County and a freshman senator in his first session, said framing the bill and watching its path was a valuable experience.

“I’ve learned about how much of a team sport this is. You can’t get anything done here without a lot of help from a lot of people,” Johnston assessed.

Johnston’s penchant for improving the education system isn’t over with the passage of SB 191.

“This bill is only the first step in a two-step process,” he said. “The first step is we need to improve the way we do business in the system and the second step is we need to now bring in the resources to help the system run effectively.

“So that means a ballot amendment next year or other opportunities to bring resources into K-12 educations and higher ed,” Johnston said.

The full effects of SB 191 won’t take hold until the 2013-2014 school year when a new evaluation system is beta-tested in every district in the state. Barring a major change, the system will fully be implemented the following school year.

Teacher tenure, or non-probationary status, will be determined by a teacher’s evaluation, which bases 50 percent on student growth from prior year assessments. Teachers will be evaluated every year and must earn “effective” ratings for three consecutive years to earn non-probationary status. Two consecutive years of “ineffective” ratings will force the teacher to probationary status, effectively stripping them of tenure. The teacher will then have one year to improve.

Principals will similarly be evaluated, with 50 percent of their performance based on teacher effectiveness and student performance.

SB 191 was controversial from the onset. The Colorado Education Association, the largest teacher’s union in the state, initially rejected the legislation for being “too much, too fast,” and called for the Governor’s Council of Educator Effectiveness — created by executive order in January and charged with recommending an evaluation system — to be allowed to finish its work.

After well over 200 amendments were introduced to the bill — approximately 50 of which passed — the union on Wednesday conceded that SB 191 is now easier to live with.

“Initially, the bill took a very complex set of topics and dealt with them in a broad and overarching manner which raised many concerns. Our 40,000 members were appalled by this attack on their profession and by the negative effects it would have on both teaching and learning,” said Beverly Ingle, CEA’s president, through a news release. “This bill has been much improved since it was introduced last month ... We are pleased with a number of the amendments that were added to the bill.”

Teachers were also split in their assessments of the legislation. While some testified at committee hearings in support of the bill, others spilled tears discussing its perceived defects. Lawmakers said the amount of public outcry on the bill was enormous.

“Every time you turn on the computer, there’s one hundred more emails on this issue,” Curry said. “Frankly it’s overwhelming because I’ve read the bill and I’ve read the amendments and I just don’t see it as being as negative as its being portrayed by the opposition.”

The amendment process, where CEA initiated a handful of key changes, according to Johnston, caused a number of Democrats to change their position on the bill. Rep. Mark Ferrandino, who delivered an impassioned speech about it in the appropriations committee, was driven to tears.

“As the bill came out of the senate, or as originally introduced, I couldn’t support it because I think the goal was right but the balance was not fair to teachers,” Ferrandino said. “I think with these amendments and asking the council to look at a lot of stuff, it becomes a fair bill.”

Ferrandino’s loyalties to the legislation changed through several amendments, including one to add an appeals process for non-probationary teachers deemed “ineffective” in two consecutive years. Teachers will be able to make their appeal to a district superintendent or a mutually agreed upon third party. The Council for Educator Effectiveness, codified through an amendment, is also charged with recommending an appeals process, Ferrandino said.

Another House amendment requires school boards to work with local unions to create incentives for “effective” teachers at high performing schools to transfer to lower performing ones.

“I think that 40 or 50 of those amendments that I’ve sponsored myself have come from conversation with teachers about people who believe that this should be done fairly and done well,” Johnston said.

Johnston earned the support of the American Federation of Teachers, a smaller union representing around 2,500 teachers in Douglas County, after recommending four key House amendments. One of those amendments gives teachers a voice when hiring a transferring district teacher in their school.

Funding for the bill was another contentious issue up until the day before it finally passed. The House appropriations committee narrowly passed the bill, 7-6, on Tuesday with a fiscal note that requires over $200,000 in gifts, grants and donations in each of the next two years. If that total isn’t achieved, money from the state contingency fund will make up the difference, according to the fiscal note.

Opponents say the bill requires a lot from districts in the form of unfunded mandates, even though the fiscal note requires so little funding.

“I think its hypocritical to say this bill doesn’t have costs. It does have costs and I think this $250,000, or whatever is a joke,” said Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, who rallied hard to kill the bill Tuesday.

Proponents of the bill believe Colorado is now positioned well enough to win a federal grant through the Race to the Top program. Colorado is eligible for $175 million in the second round of the competition, which the state will apply for in June.

When SB 191 was introduced in April, CEA said it would withdraw its support for the next round of Race to the Top. CEA officials said that stance is unlikely to change.

“Right now the position is we don’t support it,” said Tony Salazar, CEA executive director.

Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Summit County, sponsor of the bill, said when children’s educations are at stake, the costs of changing the system shouldn’t matter.

“Something obviously is not working and the status quo is not acceptable and I don’t care that there’s budget issues, there’s kids on the line,” Scanlan said. “Twenty-five percent of all kids (in Colorado) drop out. When you get to poor and minority kids, its 50 percent in Colorado, which is an embarrassment for a state of our education levels. We’re one of the highest education levels per capita in the nation.”

U.S. Census data supports Scanlan’s claim. In 2007 Colorado was third in the nation with 35 percent of the population older than 25 having at least a bachelor’s degree. In the same year, the state was 39th in spending per pupil in K-12.

But there is better way to improve the education system that doesn’t involve “blaming teachers,” Hudak said.

“All the problems could be solved if we just did a better job with quality early childhood education and then you wouldn’t have to blame the teachers,” she said. “Yes, there are some bad teachers, I don’t think this new system is really going to help get rid of them. In fact, this is probably so much more complicated and bureaucratic.

“This is not the silver bullet,” she said.

After the senate adjourned Tuesday night, Hudak joined several colleagues in watching second reading proceedings in the House. When she caught word of Kagan’s filibuster attempt earlier in the evening, Hudak said she was proud of her House colleague’s strategy.

“I loved seeing it, because I want this bill to die,” she said.

Kagan spent more than thirty minutes speaking about House Concurrent Resolution 1002. The filibuster, in which several legislators participated, lasted around 90 minutes until 6:40 p.m.

“I just wanted to come up and acknowledge Rep. Kagan’s skills,” said House Speaker Terrance Carroll to laughter when he momentarily interrupted Kagan.

The filibuster placed SB 191 in jeopardy of passing on schedule. By law, a bill’s second and third readings cannot be held on the same day. Since Wednesday was the last day of the 120-day legislature, the bill would have died if it hadn’t passed second reading Tuesday.

“I can honestly say that I have never seen a majority party having to filibuster a bill carried by a member of the majority party,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.

Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, denied that Kagan’s stall was actually a filibuster. Instead, he said there were disagreements about amendments on SB 191 that had to be worked out.

“We’re trying to make sure that amendments agreed upon, get on the bill,” Weissmann said.

Kagan said the filibuster was only one strategy out of many in opposition to the bill.

“Believe me, there is more chaos and disagreement over strategy on this bill than anything I’ve ever seen. And I think it’s fair to say that the strategy shifts from minute to minute and is still shifting from minute to minute,” he said. “This is not the way I hoped this session would end.

“What I’d like to see the House of Representatives and the Senate doing is thoughtfully deliberating on the way we can produce the best legislation for Colorado — and that’s not what is happening,” Kagan added.

After the bill passed on second reading, the House, which was bustling all night long, fell silent. Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, a stringent opponent of the bill, literally wept, and CEA’s president stared blankly from the third floor observation seating.

“It’s difficult because if you have friends on both sides of the issue and you’re on one side of it, half your friends are going to be unhappy,” said Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, a supporter of the bill. “I’m sorry it’s become so personal and I think that folks who are voting one way or another are doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do for them.”

Anthony@coloradostatesman.com