Teacher bill gets out of House Ed

The educator evaluation and tenure bill was approved by the House Education Committee on a 7-6 vote early Friday morning.

Democratic Reps. Christine Scanlan of Dillon (a prime sponsor) and Karen Middleton of Aurora voted for Senate Bill 10-191, along with all five committee Republicans.

Voting no were Democratic Reps. Debbie Benefield of Arvada, Cherilyn Peniston of Westminster, Judy Solano of Brighton, Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge, Nancy Todd of Aurora and chair Mike Merrifield of Colorado Springs.

Some of them, particularly Solano and Todd, had sometimes-harsh comments about the bill, the process of drafting it, standardized testing and about the whole course of Colorado education reform in recent years. All are former teachers except Benefield, a longtime parent activist.

“I can’t support a bill that I think is an insult to my profession,” said Merrifield, a retired music teacher serving his last session in the legislature.

“This bill has nothing to do with improving the effectiveness of teachers,” said Solano. “This bill scapegoats teachers for all the inadequacies of public education.”

Scanlan, a former Summit County school board member, defended the proposal in her closing remarks. “I believe it’s what we need to do. I believe it will make the difference we’re seeking for our kids. I believe it’s the start of a new era.”

Key amendments added by the committee included:

  • Teacher effectiveness, then seniority, will be considered when layoffs are made.
  • Non-probationary teachers with good evaluations can carry their non-probationary status to other districts, although that won’t necessarily affect pay.
  • Teachers as well as the principal will participate in the mutual consent process for teacher placement that the bill would mandate.
  • A strengthened appeals process for teachers who receive ineffective evaluations.
  • Costs for the initial steps of implementing the law will be covered by a Department of Education contingency fund, if federal funding, such as Race to the Top money, isn’t available.

The bill requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student academic growth, measured by multiple assessment. Merrifield proposed an amendment proposes a figure on one-third but then withdrew the idea, saying he’ll likely propose it during floor debate.

The committee decision came at the end of an 11-hour meeting, 10 hours of which were devoted to testimony, debate and – at times – high emotion on SB 10-191.

Both sides mustered teachers and parents to speak for their sides, some telling personal stories. Administrators and business leaders supported the bill. There even was testimony from people who weren’t there.

Merrifield read a letter from education scholar and author Diane Ravitch, who wrote, “Colorado can’t fire its way to better teachers.”

Laurie Hirschfeld Zeller, president of A+ Denver, read a letter from former Denver Mayor Fedrico Peña, who had testified passionately at the Senate Education Committee hearing on the bill.

“I’m so sorry Federico wasn’t here because I was armed and ready for him,” Merrifield said.

The last witness, Associate Commissioner Rich Wenning of the Colorado Department of Education, took the brunt of sharp comments from committee critics but cooly defended the bill.

“We are dealing with a major systemic reform. … It’s really comparable to the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids. … Statutes catalyze change.”

The bill must go to the House Appropriations Committee before it can go to the floor. It’s expected to be heard in committee Monday and, if passed, on the floor shortly thereafter. Lawmakers have a Wednesday adjournment deadline.

While the bill has broad support among education reform groups, business leaders, the state Board of Education, Commissioner Dwight Jones and Gov. Bill Ritter, the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, is strongly opposed.

The American Federation of Teachers-Colorado, which represents Douglas County teachers, came out in support of the bill this week. Its witnesses led off the marathon testimony session that started at 1:30 Thursday afternoon. Testimony from dozens of witnesses lasted more than eight hours.

Interest groups on both sides have lobbied this issue heavily with e-mails and personal contact with lawmakers. The CEA is a traditional contributor to Democratic legislative candidates, giving it a certain amount of clout. The union has been running radio ads, and groups supporting the bill ran a full-page ad in a Denver newspaper Thursday morning.

Both sides also have carefully selected their witnesses for the hearings in the House and Senate education committees. (Many of the witnesses at Thursday’s House hearing were repeaters from the earlier hearing before the Senate Education Committee.)

Sponsored by a bipartisan team of senators and representatives, the major provisions of the bill would create new teacher and principal evaluation systems and tie evaluations to gaining – and losing – non-probationary status.

The bill is similar to legislation being discussed in other states and is part of a national push for reforms in educator evaluations. Some observers feel passing the bill could help Colorado’s bid for round two of Race to the Top.

If passed, the system wouldn’t fully go into effect until 2014-15, after a lengthy process of development by the already-existing Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness, issuance of rules by the State Board of Education, legislative review and two years of development and testing.

(The council was created by a governor’s executive order in January and assigned to develop definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness, study other issues of educator effectiveness and make recommendations to the legislature. SB 10-191 basically retains that role for the council but adds specific policy guidelines for evaluation and tenure and creates larger roles for the state board and the legislature. The council has met twice and already is working on effectiveness definitions.)

The bill would require annual teacher and principal evaluations (more frequently than generally is done now) and tying 50 percent of the evaluations to student academic growth. The state Department of Education would assist school districts in developing a variety of student assessments in addition the annual statewide CSAP tests. (The CSAPS, scheduled to be replaced in a few years, don’t cover all grades or all subjects, requiring additional kinds of tests if all teachers are to be evaluated based partly on student growth.)

The bill also would require that tenure be earned after three consecutive years of effectiveness as determined by evaluations. Tenured teachers could be returned to probation if they didn’t have good evaluations for two years. (This part of the bill is particularly worrisome to CEA, which feels it would take away due-process rights for non-probationary teachers and expose them to removal by administrators who unfairly use bad evaluations.)

The bill also would require the mutual consent for placement of teachers in specific schools and establishes procedures for handling teachers who aren’t placed. It also specifies that evaluations can be considered when layoffs are made, in addition to seniority. (CEA doesn’t like this part of the bill either.)

A Senate amendment would create an appeal right for non-probationary teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations, although the bill’s sponsors intend that detailed appeal procedures would be left up to district-union contract negotiations.

The bill also includes external factors that could be considered in evaluations, such as student mobility, the percentage of at-risk students in a school and numbers of special education students.

Once state standards for evaluation are in place, local school districts would be required to “meet or exceed” those standards in their evaluation systems.

The bill estimates about $240,000 in administrative costs for each of the next two years.

CEA has expressed a strong preference for a different process for changing the current system. Once definitions of effectiveness are created, then a new evaluation system should be set up and tested. Only after that, the CEA believes, should the decision be made about how to use the evaluation system in probation, school placement and layoff decisions.

The union also has raised concerns about the potential costs of effective and fair new evaluation systems, both for the state and for school districts.

Text of the bill as passed by the Senate but before House Ed amendments

Texts of amendments adopted by House Ed