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Senate passes teacher bill 21-14

Update 12:31 p.m. April 30 – The Senate voted 21-14 Friday morning to pass Senate Bill 10-191, the educator evaluation and tenure bill. Seven Democrats and 14 Republicans supported the bill; 14 Democrats voted no.

The Democrats who voted for the bill were Joyce Foster of Denver, Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne, Rollie Heath of Boulder, Mary Hodge of Brighton, Mike Johnston of Denver, Linda Newell of Denver and Chris Romer of Denver.

Senators discussed SB 10-191 for about 45 minutes before the roll-call vote.

Johnston, the bill’s prime mover, responded to critics’ concerns about lack of funding by saying, “I absolutely agree this is about resources” but that “in the meantime we can’t say we’re going to do nothing. I believe this bill helps us in one small step of the way.”

The Denver Democrat stressed that the five-year timeline for implementing the new program will allow plenty of time for crafting a good program.

“We need to find it within ourselves to find the [financial] support in the next five years … to make this a success,” said Heath.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, has led the charge against the bill, voicing many of the concerns raised by the state’s largest teachers union, the Colorado Education Association.

“There are two big things wrong with this bill,” she said, starting her eight minutes of remarks. “First, this bill is a huge unfunded mandate.”

The second problem, Hudak argued, is, “What this bill is about is eliminating tenure.” The bill “is not about helping teachers become effective.”

Saying “this whole discussion has been extremely difficult for me,” Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, told his colleagues he wasn’t sure how he would vote. “I wish sometimes we could vote maybe.” Bacon, a former teacher and school board member and chair of the Senate Education Committee, ultimately voted no.

The Senate  gave preliminary approval to the bill Thursday evening after more than six hours of debate on a blizzard of amendments.

A focus of the debate was on whether the bill offers sufficient due-process protections to teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations and who would revert to probationary status because of consecutive unsatisfactory evaluations.

Critics of the bill also tried to amend its provisions requiring mutual consent of principals and teachers for placement in schools.

Evaluation illustration

Hudak, a former teacher and State Board of Education member, led the charge to tone the bill down but her amendments were repeatedly rebuffed on voice and standing votes by the coalition of Democrats and Republicans who are backing the bill.

On major points, the measure passed little changed from the heavily amended version approved by the Senate Education Committee.

Hudak’s key amendment would have deleted the portion of the bill requiring non-probationary teachers to be returned to probation after unsatisfactory evaluations.

“This is the heart of the objections to this bill,” Hudak said. If this section were removed, “you would end the civil war.”

The amendment failed on a standing vote.

Amendments that did pass would require the Governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness to develop standards for different levels of effectiveness and cost estimates for the new program, add some provisions for professional development of unsatisfactory teachers, and allow individual districts and unions to apply for waivers from the bill’s mutual consent provisions.

After the amending was done Thursday, supporters of the bill touted its importance.

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver / File photo

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver

Johnston was low-key, saying, “There’s no doubt that change is always hard for adults, but there’s no doubt that the status quo is harder for kids.”

Heath said, “I hope none of us underestimate what we’re doing here in terms of the sea change. … This is a monumental change, it truly is.”

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, invoked the name of former Senate President Peter Groff, saying that advocate of school reform would be proud of the bill.

During the concluding discussion, Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, sounded the only negative note, saying she supports reform but that the issue of due process still needs to be resolved.

Hudak didn’t speak during the wrapup debate Thursday.

The bill will move next week to the House, where the due-process debate will be rekindled and some members may be more skeptical than their Senate colleagues. Still, supporters feel they have a reasonable chance of passage in the House.

The bill is a complex one – and it was made more complicated in places by Thursday’s amendments.

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. Although some observers feel passing the bill could help Colorado’s bid for round two of Race to the Top, that aspect has played little role in legislative debates.

Under amendments added by Senate Education, the system wouldn’t fully go into effect until 2014-15, after a lengthy process of development by the educator effectiveness council, 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.

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.

A Senate Ed 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. (Appeal rights were the subject of several unsuccessful amendments Thursday.)

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. Also defeated Thursday was an amendment that would have made “lack of parental involvement” one of those mitigating evaluation factors.

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, to be funded by “gifts, grants and donations.”

While the bill has broad support among education reform groups, 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.

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.

CEA has kept its lines of communication open, however, and was behind some of the unsuccessful amendments proposed on the Senate floor Thursday.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, a CEA affiliate, was planning street-corner demonstrations against the bill in central Denver Friday and Saturday.

As with several other key education proposals, legislators are racing the clock with SB 10-191, because they must adjourn no later than May 12.