Panel gives unexpected OK to stipends for top teachers

Sometimes events don’t follow the script at the Colorado legislature, which was the case Wednesday when a bipartisan committee majority passed a bill that would pay extra stipends to highly effective teachers who work in struggling elementary schools.

The bill was changed so much by Democratic amendments that prime sponsor Rep. Kevin Priola ended up voting against his own bill. The House Education Committee session lasted three hours but felt rushed, particularly at the end when the panel had to vote hastily before vacating the hearing room to make way for another committee.

The proposal is something of a crusade for Priola, a Henderson Republican. He introduced House Bill 15-1200 this session after seeing a similar measure defeated in 2014.

As originally written by Priola, the bill proposed creation of a $4 million grant program that districts could use to offer salary bonuses to teachers rated as highly effective who move to the two lowest-rated categories of schools — “priority improvement” and “turnaround.”A smaller bonus was proposed for such teachers who chose to stay in low-performing schools.

The program would be voluntary for both districts and teachers, and it would be a four-year pilot.

“This is a serious proposal with hard data to back it up,” Priola said. “This bill puts the best resource you can possibly have in the classroom … a highly effective teacher.”

He was less enthusiastic about the bill after amendments were approved. One made nationally board certified teachers eligible for the stipends. The second limits the definition of highly effective to the results of evaluations of teachers by supervisors and doesn’t include student growth measures.

“I’m kind of just amazed that we watered down something that is supported by research. I’m going to be a no vote on my own bill,” a visibly irritated Priola said.

The amended bill passed on a bipartisan 7-4 vote.

Testimony recycles old debates

The bill before amendments was supported by education reform groups such as Colorado Succeeds, Stand for Children, and the Colorado Children’s Campaign but opposed by the Colorado Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Committee members’ discussion and witness testimony reprised some of the reformer vs. union debates of recent years, complete with liberal use of the phrase “research shows” and education jargon like “inputs” and “outputs.”

Opponents and supporters differed repeatedly on the question of how much teachers, if at all, are motivated by money. Such discussions have been rare this year, with lawmakers focused on issues like testing and the education system’s role in workforce development.

Kerrie Dallman, president of the state union, said the bill “is an insult to every teacher who has dedicated their career to serving these students. … It really sounds like Rep. Priola is proposing combat pay for teachers in these kinds of schools.”

Martin Mendez, a Mapleton district parent who testified later in favor of the bill, quipped, “I don’t think this is combat pay. I think it’s inspiration pay.”

Dallman’s tone was stern as she testified, and she sparred a bit with some Republican members.

But the star witness was Adams 14 teacher Michele Deats, who opposed the bill but captured the attention and smiles of committee members with her fast-paced and articulate testimony.

Saying she used to work in sales, Deats said, “I’m at a third of my old pay, and I couldn’t be happier. … It’s not about the money, it’s really about working conditions” for teachers, she said.

Deats teaches sixth grade language arts at Kearney Middle School. Republican Rep. Jim Wilson, former Salida superintendent, was so impressed he half seriously tried to recruit Deats to move to the mountains.

The amended bill’s prospects are highly uncertain from here on out. Its $4 million price tag makes it vulnerable in end-of-session debates over K-12 spending. And if HB 15-1200 makes it out of the House its Democratic amendments may not survive long in the Republican-controlled Senate.