Licensing of teachers hasn’t been an issue in the Colorado education reform debates of recent years, but that may change in the 2013 legislative session.

And two familiar issues, school finance and reduced college tuition rates for undocumented students, look like they’ll be back before lawmakers next year.

Since 2008, legislators have passed key bills on content standards and testing, ratings and improvement plans for districts and schools, educator evaluation and early literacy, all in an effort to improve – eventually – the academic performance of Colorado students.

Teacher licensing hasn’t been a major part of those discussions, but a new report and interest in the issue on the part of a key lawmaker have raised the stakes.

“I’m very interested” in licensing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, told Education News Colorado. “I’m hoping to do something next session.”

When Johnston is interested, other lawmakers take notice. He’s been at the center of several major education debates and was the author of Senate Bill 10-191, the law that mandated new evaluation systems for principals and teachers and required 50 percent of evaluations be based on students’ academic growth.

People at the Colorado Department of Education also have been thinking about licensing, and a new report completed for CDE raises some provocative questions.

That study, titled “Making Licensure Matter,” was done for the department by The New Teacher Project, funded by the Rose Community Foundation. The idea of looking at licensing started with the State Council for Educator Effectiveness, the group that developed the proposed regulations for implementing SB 10-191 and which is continuing to work on implementation of the law.

Proposed teacher licenses
Description of licenses proposed by the report. Click image to enlarge.
Presented to the State Board of Education earlier this month, the report recommends, among other things, using a new test for obtaining a license and tying license renewal to teacher evaluations. The recommendation would end the current system of basing renewals on professional development and college courses. A new system could be put in place by 2016, the report suggests.

If the two-hour discussion at the state board’s Sept. 12 meeting is any indication, the issue could be a lively one in the legislature.

Consultant Berrick Abramson of The New Teacher Project told the board, “We need to raise the bar to entry” to the teaching profession and that Colorado also needs to “widen the applicant pool.” (See additional details of the plan below.)

Abramson drew a flurry of questions from board members. Debora Scheffel, a Republican who represents the 6th Congressional District, was the most skeptical.

“I just think this creates more cost with the testing,” she said. “We have to have an army of people to follow this; this really complicates the process.”

Scheffel also said such a system would “decimate the work of higher education … I certainly hope Colorado doesn’t go in this direction.”

Elaine Gantz Berman, the Democrat who represents the 1st District, also said, “It does seem like we’re adding steps.”

But Jill Hawley, associate education commissioner, said, “My sense is we are eliminating a lot of the levels of bureaucracy that we have now.”

Angelika Schroeder, a Democrat from the 2nd District, asked questions about linking license renewal to teacher evaluations and said she wants to hear what the effectiveness council thinks about that idea.

Teacher licensing chart
Comparison of current and proposed licensing system. Click image to enlarge.
Chair Bob Schaffer questioned the whole idea of licensing. “Why do we have to have licensure in the first place?” asked the 4th District Republican. Schaffer is generally of the view that unfettered parent choice is more effective than government regulation in improving educational quality.

“We do believe the state has an important role,” responded Abramson.

Board members agreed the issue needs a lot more discussion, as did education Commissioner Robert Hammond. But, he warned, “We can’t stop” legislators from running with their own ideas.

Johnston seems the most likely lawmaker to do that.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years,” he said, adding that he “was very excited” to see the study, although he hadn’t finished reading it.

“That idea is interesting to me,” Johnston said about the recommendation to tie license renewal to evaluations. “It seem to me renewal of your license ought to be pretty automatic” if you receive effective evaluations.

“We’re early in the process,” Johnston said. “There’s a lot of input to get and work to do over the next three months.”

The level of chatter about this issue already is rising among interest groups and education lobbyists. Colorado Education Association lobbyist Karen Wick said the teachers’ union plans to be involved in the discussions, but that CEA doesn’t support tying license renewal to evaluations.

Johnston and the CEA crossed swords over SB 10-191, although union experts have been active participants in discussions of how to implement the law since it passed.

Johnston plans to be busy – again

Johnston also told EdNews he plans to try again with an ASSET bill to reduce college tuition for undocumented students: “ASSET is a bill I’ve committed to run every year until it passes.”

The 2012 version of that idea, Senate Bill 12-015, passed the Senate and the House Education Committee but died in the House Finance Committee. In the meantime, Metropolitan State University got tired of waiting and implemented its own tuition plan for undocumented students, much to the consternation of Republican officials.

Johnston, who is up for re-election this year but holds a safely Democratic seat, also said he’s considering legislation to makes changes in Colorado’s school finance system. He hoped to do that last spring, building on recommendations made by the School Finance Partnership, but he ran out of time as the session wound down and didn’t introduce a bill.

He said he’s working with an advisory group of experts to develop ideas for a bill.

Asked if licensing and school finance bills would be in shape by the start of the session in January, Johnston said, “I don’t know when we’ll have them ready.”

SB 10-191 was introduced as the 2010 session was entering its last month, setting off frantic days of negotiation that didn’t end until the bill was passed on the last day of that session.

Highlights of “Making Licensure Matter”

Philosophy

  • Licensure should be based on “outcomes” rather than “inputs”
  • Base licensure decisions on the demonstrated ability of the individual
  • Raise the bar to entry; assess both knowledge and classroom ability
  • Widen the applicant pool and provide greater district autonomy
  • Elevate the profession and create career ladder opportunities

Major recommendations

  • Clearly establish that the purpose of licensure is to affirm the basic preparedness of new entrants and the competence of current practitioners.
  • Base license renewal decisions on an individual’s record of performance.
  • Simplify the current system to two licenses for all teachers. Confer a full Teacher License on entrants who demonstrate readiness. Confer a Transitional License on other entrants.
  • Develop a Teacher Leader License and a Transitional Principal License to establish a career ladder for teachers and give LEAs (local education agencies or districts) more flexibility to meet their leadership needs.
  • Remove unnecessary barriers and costs for educators and state agencies.
  • Read the full report