Civics Day gives teachers refresher on state issues

By Marianne Goodland

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, the sponsor of the controversial teacher tenure bill SB 10-191 in the 2010 session, became, ever so briefly, the focus of attention from teachers again last week, as part of Colorado Civics Day at the state capitol. And Johnston’s efforts to explain the bill may have at least assuaged some of their concerns.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, chats with Marc Small of Rangeview High School following a session on the decision- making process for legislators during Colorado Civics Day, Dec. 3.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, chats with teachers and students from African nations during a break in the action.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman
Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, left, Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs and Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll share perspectives on life in the three branches of government during Colorado Civics Day.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

The daylong event, held Dec. 3, is designed to provide middle and high school teachers with civic education resources and curriculum tools that align with the state’s content standards for civics and government classes. Civics Day is sponsored by the Center for Education in Law and Democracy, a Denver-based non-profit that offers teacher and student programs on civic education. CELD Executive Director Barb Miller told The Colorado Statesman that while the event is in its 26th year, 2010 marked the first time it was held at the state capitol and focused exclusively on state issues. About 130 teachers attended the Friday program.

The day featured a dozen sessions on public policy, U.S. Supreme Court and Colorado Supreme Court cases; the 2011 legislative agenda, the state’s $1.1 billion budget gap, the debate over birthright citizenship and how legislators decide controversial issues.

The latter featured Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Johnston, who discussed the factors that influenced their votes on controversial legislation in the last session, including Johnston’s SB 191.

The session started out quietly enough in room 112 of the state capitol basement. But according to teachers who spoke to The Statesman after the session, word got out that the sponsor of SB 191 was at a session, and the room’s audience grew.

The Civics Day session focused primarily on how legislators make decisions, using factors such as personal convictions, feedback of constituents and interest groups, and party affiliation.

SB 191 drew intense opposition from the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, during the 2010 session. The CEA, in a Capitol Connection blog post on May, called SB 191 a “bad bill” that “won’t make every child succeed in school and graduate from high school. The sponsors are wrong about all the magic changes in student achievement SB 191 will make overnight.”

SB 191 was used as the primary example of a controversial bill from 2010, Johnston said, at the teachers’ request. “They were very curious about SB 191,” Johnston told The Statesman. He characterized their questions as thoughtful and the reception he got from them warm. “When you get a chance to sit down and walk them through the process” and structures coming out of the bill, they seemed far less worried about it, he said. “Most were encouraged,” and some seemed relieved.

For his part, Johnston said he was so excited to have a room full of social studies teachers that he asked them to stay after to talk about assessments, discussions that have continued into this week.

Marc Small of Rangeview High School said after the session that sometimes teachers are misinformed about legislation and “don’t always do our own homework.” He said he went to the session to learn if what he was hearing from CEA and others is accurate. Small said he believes teachers do have to be evaluated on performance but that veteran teachers are “threatened” by what may come out SB 191. However, as veteran teachers retire and new ones come in the system, he said, evaluations will become part of the profession. He indicated he doesn’t worry about the evaluations. “If you’re passionate about [teaching], you’ll perform,” he said.

Joyanne Siripachana, a teacher at Lesher Middle School in Fort Collins, had been at the capitol during the debate over SB 191. She attended the session with Johnston to learn more about his background as a teacher and school administrator (Johnston is a founder and former school principal for the Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts, a Gates-funded middle/high school in Thornton.).

“I wanted to learn more about who was for it,” Siripachana told The Statesman. She said she appreciated the discussion on assessment, but is concerned about “blanket assessments” and policies that may not fit in with the unique competencies of her students, who are dual-language speakers.

After listening to Johnston, however, Siripachana indicated she would withhold judgment until she sees the bill implemented and whether it actually improves the state’s education system.

Also attending Friday’s session: teachers and students from four African nations, as part of the Denver-based Bold Leaders program, funded in part by the U.S. Department of State. Miller said the group included five students and one teacher each from Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, and that previous participants in the Bold Leaders program have attended Civics Day events in the past.

Teachers and students also attended an afternoon presentation from two elected officials whose time in office will end in a few weeks, plus a sitting member of the Colorado Supreme Court.

The trio — Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien; Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, D-Denver; and Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs — offered perspectives from each branch of government.

The panel addressed questions such as what students should be proficient in regarding government, and misunderstandings about government that they’d want to see corrected.

O’Brien said students need to be good critical thinkers and not afraid of compromise. “Democracy is prone to conflict,” she said; students should learn how to work things out with those with whom they disagree, and to learn that compromise is “not a weakness.” That sentiment was echoed by Carroll, who added that he has lived by a philosophy of being prepared to admit when he’s wrong and the art of being humble.

“Be a good reader, a patient listener and a careful communicator,” said Hobbs.

Among O’Brien’s peeves about perceptions of government: people who don’t know the difference between state and local government. O’Brien said she has been “harangued” in grocery stores from people who complain about problems with their neighbors’ dogs and other local government issues, and as a result much of her time is spent hearing about things “that have nothing to do with state government.”

O’Brien and Carroll both spoke to the need for people to have better attitudes about government. State government belongs to the people of Colorado, O’Brien said. “It doesn’t help to revile government” or the people who serve in it, she explained. Those who work in state government are people, too, she said, and citizens need to “cut each other some slack.”

One of Carroll’s peeves is that people don’t understand state finance or the budget, and he said that as result some pay too much attention to rhetoric about taxes being too high or that government spends too much. Carroll said he’d also like to see a greater appreciation for the hard work done by legislators. “We’ve made it appear that public officials are in office for the wrong reasons…it’s long hours and hard work,” he said, asking that people rethink their opinions on those who work in public service. “It’s just as patriotic to serve as a governor, legislator or judge as it is to serve in the military,” Carroll said.

Hobbs said people should understand that judges are not involved in politics. “The opinions speak for themselves. The judicial [branch] is the only branch of government that gives reasons for its decisions in writing…It’s why we don’t talk to the press,” Hobbs explained.

Finally, the panelists talked about how they got into public service. Carroll spoke of his days growing up in Washington D.C. and especially in 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran for president. Carroll’s family, who he said was on food stamps and other government food programs, got excited about Carter’s candidacy because he was a peanut farmer. Carroll said they hoped if he got elected they’d get better peanut butter. “It was all about self-interest — getting better peanut butter!”

O’Brien said she had been a speechwriter for Gov. Dick Lamm and spent 16 years as president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign. When Gov. Bill Ritter called her, she assumed he was going to ask for money, and she put together a presentation on children’s issues. Instead, Ritter told her to put her papers away and join him in the race as his candidate for lieutenant governor. “It took me a month to say yes,” O’Brien said, but what convinced her was the thought that if someone else was selected for the job, that person would get to put childrens’ interests at the top of the agenda and “it wouldn’t be me.”

Hobbs said his first job out of law school was as a clerk for 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge William Doyle, who ordered Denver schools to desegregate, at great personal price, according to Hobbs. After the decision, Hobbs said, Doyle’s life was never the same: his porch and house were bombed and his wife had psychological problems. “I pass by his picture every day,” Hobbs said. “I give it a salute and then go to work.”