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Hearing teases out teacher bill fears

Just what does the Colorado Education Association want in a teacher evaluation system?

Members of the Senate Education Committee kept raising that question in different forms Wednesday as the panel opened two days of hearings on Senate Bill 10-191, the proposed teacher evaluation and tenure legislation.

The 40,000-member CEA was first in line to oppose the bill after it was introduced last week, saying the just-started work of the Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness should be allowed to proceed without change by SB 10-191.

An extensive set of amendments has been prepared for the bill, changes that were discussed a bit on Wednesday and that Senate Ed is to vote on Thursday. Those amendments seem to have diminished potential opposition by some committee members and have raised interest in how CEA would react.

Bev Ingle, CEA president, and executive director Tony Salazar made it clear that the proposed amendments haven’t changed the union’s mind.

“We object to reform that is being done to teachers rather than with teachers” Salazar said, calling the bill “one more example of untested top-down policy.”

“We need to work as partners, not have things done to us,” Ingle said.

Ingle and Salazar were among several CEA officials who testified Wednesday, and the main points of concern emerged in all that testimony.

Timetable: The CEA believes definitions of teacher and principal effectiveness have to be developed before taking other steps, like changing the system of education evaluations and deciding how evaluation results can be used in discipline, assignments, salaries and termination.

“The real issue is building a system in the right way. It’s about not determining outcomes before the system is built,” Salazar said.

Some committee members had some difficulty with that view. “I don’t see anything here that interferes with that process” of doing effectiveness definitions first, said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. “Is that not enough time?” (One of the key proposed amendments would substantially lengthen the implementation timeline, compared to what was proposed in the original bill.)

Due process: Prime sponsor Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, has maintained that the bill wouldn’t change existing due process rights for teachers. (Probationary teachers in their first three years of work can be dismissed without cause. Non-probationary teachers have the right to impartial arbitration in dismissal cases.)

But union lobbyist Julie Whitacre and CEA general counsel Martha Houser raised due-process concerns about provisions of the bill that would allow non-probationary teachers to be put back on probation if they had unsatisfactory evaluations, require mutual principal-teacher consent for placement in a school and allow administrators to consider evaluations when deciding on layoffs.

House said returning non-probationary teachers to probation would eliminate their due process rights, and that mutual consent would in effect allow principals to remove even teachers with a strong evaluation record.

Cost: The CEA witnesses repeatedly raised concerns about the uncalculated and unfunded potential costs of a new evaluation system. (One proposed amendment would fund initial costs from “gifts, grants and donations.”)

The bill “creates unfunded mandates for school districts,” Salazar said. “The funding issue … that’s a major issue we can’t brush aside.”

Whitacre suggested it would cost “a minimum of over $70 million” in costs for evaluations and professional development of evaluators. The bill calls for annual evaluations. Current practice generally evaluates teachers every three years.

Colorado has a recent history of passing education reforms without the budgets to pay for them. Several small programs have been legislated with “gifts, grants and donations.” The major example is the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, which calls for a multi-year overhaul of content standards, tests, high school graduation requirements, college admissions requirements and more. A recent estimate put the price tag for just the first phase of that at more than $170 million. Further studies are scheduled.

Lynn Huizing, president of the Colorado PTA, testified Wednesday that her group opposes the bill because “we are concerned this bill sets forth a system without adequate funding.”

Paula Stephenson of the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus said that group is “in favor of the broad concepts of the bill” but is worried about “a huge administrative burden. … We don’t know if this is the time to ram legislation through for the sake of change.”

Committee chair Sen. Bob Bacon of Fort Collins has set aside four hours for testimony on the bill. The committee will resume at 1 p.m. Thursday, take another hour of opposition testimony, two hours of supporter testimony and then decide on amendments and vote on the bill. Bacon hopes to finish all that by 5 p.m.

Thursday’s testimony will allow the coalition of education reform, civic and business groups backing the bill to make their case. To bolster their case, the advocacy group Stand for Children commissioned a poll of Coloradans about school spending, education issues and teacher effectiveness.

In opening remarks Wednesday, co-prime sponsor Sen Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, cited the poll as showing public support for changes such as those proposed by SB 10-191. (See the at the end of this article for a summary of poll results.)

The bill got a boost Wednesday from Gov. Bill Ritter and his three predecessors, Republican Bill Owens and Democrats Roy Romer and Dick Lamm. In a column distributed for newspaper publication, the four wrote they “enthusiastically support” SB 10-191 and “passionately urge” the legislature to pass it. (Text of column via Denver Business Journal. PDF)

Meanwhile …

While the committee was mulling the future of the Educator Effectiveness Council, that very body was meeting across East Colfax Avenue (at CEA headquarters) and actually discussing how to define teacher and principal effectiveness.

During its second meeting, the panel did some organizational tasks, received a briefing on research about effectiveness and then broke into small groups to brainstorm what effectiveness might look like (previous story with background on the council).

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