Four reform-minded superintendents and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña headlined the witnesses supporting Senate Bill 10-191 in testimony before the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon.

Superintendents Tom Boasberg, John Barry, Mike Miles and Charlotte Ciancio lined up April 22, 2010, to support the proposed educator effectiveness bill.

Peña spoke passionately about the need for the bill and for education reform and easily parried questions from Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who emerged as the most skeptical and persistent committee member Thursday.

“There are some who want us to go slow,” said Peña, who heads the A+ Denver citizens’ group advising Denver Public Schools. “I understand compromise. I understand we have to be flexible.” But, he said, proposed amendments that would extend the bill’s timeline “should give some comfort to teachers and principals.

“Let us not wait another 10 years to be bold,” he said. “Let us seize this historic opportunity.”

The meeting, which started at 1:30 p.m. and ran well past 6 p.m., ended two sessions of testimony on the high-profile bill, which would substantially change the state’s rules for evaluating teachers and principals and for moving teachers in and out of probation. Read background.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has mounted a full court press in opposition to the bill. CEA witnesses testified during the committee’s first meeting Wednesday and at the beginning of Thursday’s session. See this story for details on the Wednesday meeting.

The CEA is organizing a rally at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Capitol’s west steps, promising about 600 teachers will show up. About 60 presidents of CEA local associations plan to lobby legislators.

At Thursday’s hearing, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the CEA’s parent organization, gave an articulate critique of the bill.

“The status quo for too many of our students in unacceptable,” he said. “I hope another thing we can agree on is that if you really want to transform a school … it requires collaboration. … You must have a good evaluation system and a professional development system.”

The supporting side had its own national witness, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, who vigorously supported the measure.

He argued that the bill actually “would give teachers far more protection than they have today.”

And a different union leader, Brenda Smith, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Colorado unit, testified in qualified support of the bill Thursday. “We are looking forward to improving the language … for the best possible results,” she said.

Four superintendents who have tried various reform experiments in their districts also put their weight behind the measure.

Charlotte Ciancio of Mapleton led off the testimony and noted that all other metro-area superintendents back the bill.

Mike Miles of Harrison and Tom Boasberg of Denver talked about teacher quality reforms in their districts.

John Barry of Aurora was perhaps the most forceful, saying, “Evaluations and tenure change must happen together. … We need an environment of continuous improvement … based on evaluations every year.”

Other civic heavyweights backing the bill were Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver; George Sparks, head of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Colorado Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney; and Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Groups such as Padres Unidos, the Urban League and the black and Hispanic chambers of commerce also support SB 10-191.

It was obvious that both the CEA and supporters carefully selected and prepared their witnesses. Almost all read from prepared statements, and both sides had marshaled teachers, principals and other representative figures to speak.

Some CEA witnesses told emotional stories about how they had lost jobs or struggled against unfair evaluations.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the prime mover behind SB 10-191, roamed around the Old Supreme Court Chamber, looking for witnesses and checking the list he carried in his hand.

The sharpest moment of the hearing came when Hudak challenged Peña, saying, “If I read between the lines, it sounds like you’re saying the reason we’re losing those [at-risk] students is because the teachers are bad.”

Pena, whose rhetorical skills have been honed by years as civil rights lawyer, legislator, mayor and federal cabinet secretary, replied, “I said the exact opposite, with all due respect.”

With several witnesses, Hudak raised the question of how teachers can be evaluated on the basis of tests that students may not take seriously. She repeatedly used the analogy of a dental hygienist whose patents don’t take care of their teeth.

It got to the point that some witnesses started to pre-empt Hudak by using their own dental analogies.

Senate Ed, which normally meets on Wednesdays and Thursdays, will hold an extra meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday to consider a lengthy list of proposed amendments and to vote on the bill.

The clock is ticking for SB 10-191 and several other pieces of key education legislation. Starting Friday, lawmakers have only 14 working days left before they must adjourn. If passed by the committee, the bill has to go through two rounds on Senate floor consideration before it can go to the House, where the whole process will have to be repeated starting in the House Education Committee.