Who Is In Charge

Teacher bill – next comes the vote

Four reform-minded superintendents and former Denver Mayor Federico Peña headlined the witnesses supporting Senate Bill 10-191 in testimony before the Senate Education Committee Thursday afternoon.

Superintendents Tom Boasberg, John Barry, Mike Miles and Charlotte Ciancio lined up April 22, 2010, to support the proposed educator effectiveness bill.

Peña spoke passionately about the need for the bill and for education reform and easily parried questions from Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who emerged as the most skeptical and persistent committee member Thursday.

“There are some who want us to go slow,” said Peña, who heads the A+ Denver citizens’ group advising Denver Public Schools. “I understand compromise. I understand we have to be flexible.” But, he said, proposed amendments that would extend the bill’s timeline “should give some comfort to teachers and principals.

“Let us not wait another 10 years to be bold,” he said. “Let us seize this historic opportunity.”

The meeting, which started at 1:30 p.m. and ran well past 6 p.m., ended two sessions of testimony on the high-profile bill, which would substantially change the state’s rules for evaluating teachers and principals and for moving teachers in and out of probation. Read background.

The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has mounted a full court press in opposition to the bill. CEA witnesses testified during the committee’s first meeting Wednesday and at the beginning of Thursday’s session. See this story for details on the Wednesday meeting.

The CEA is organizing a rally at 9:30 a.m. Friday on the Capitol’s west steps, promising about 600 teachers will show up. About 60 presidents of CEA local associations plan to lobby legislators.

At Thursday’s hearing, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the CEA’s parent organization, gave an articulate critique of the bill.

“The status quo for too many of our students in unacceptable,” he said. “I hope another thing we can agree on is that if you really want to transform a school … it requires collaboration. … You must have a good evaluation system and a professional development system.”

The supporting side had its own national witness, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project, who vigorously supported the measure.

He argued that the bill actually “would give teachers far more protection than they have today.”

And a different union leader, Brenda Smith, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Colorado unit, testified in qualified support of the bill Thursday. “We are looking forward to improving the language … for the best possible results,” she said.

Four superintendents who have tried various reform experiments in their districts also put their weight behind the measure.

Charlotte Ciancio of Mapleton led off the testimony and noted that all other metro-area superintendents back the bill.

Mike Miles of Harrison and Tom Boasberg of Denver talked about teacher quality reforms in their districts.

John Barry of Aurora was perhaps the most forceful, saying, “Evaluations and tenure change must happen together. … We need an environment of continuous improvement … based on evaluations every year.”

Other civic heavyweights backing the bill were Dan Ritchie, former chancellor of the University of Denver; George Sparks, head of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; Colorado Children’s Campaign President Chris Watney; and Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Groups such as Padres Unidos, the Urban League and the black and Hispanic chambers of commerce also support SB 10-191.

It was obvious that both the CEA and supporters carefully selected and prepared their witnesses. Almost all read from prepared statements, and both sides had marshaled teachers, principals and other representative figures to speak.

Some CEA witnesses told emotional stories about how they had lost jobs or struggled against unfair evaluations.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver and the prime mover behind SB 10-191, roamed around the Old Supreme Court Chamber, looking for witnesses and checking the list he carried in his hand.

The sharpest moment of the hearing came when Hudak challenged Peña, saying, “If I read between the lines, it sounds like you’re saying the reason we’re losing those [at-risk] students is because the teachers are bad.”

Pena, whose rhetorical skills have been honed by years as civil rights lawyer, legislator, mayor and federal cabinet secretary, replied, “I said the exact opposite, with all due respect.”

With several witnesses, Hudak raised the question of how teachers can be evaluated on the basis of tests that students may not take seriously. She repeatedly used the analogy of a dental hygienist whose patents don’t take care of their teeth.

It got to the point that some witnesses started to pre-empt Hudak by using their own dental analogies.

Senate Ed, which normally meets on Wednesdays and Thursdays, will hold an extra meeting at 1:30 p.m. Friday to consider a lengthy list of proposed amendments and to vote on the bill.

The clock is ticking for SB 10-191 and several other pieces of key education legislation. Starting Friday, lawmakers have only 14 working days left before they must adjourn. If passed by the committee, the bill has to go through two rounds on Senate floor consideration before it can go to the House, where the whole process will have to be repeated starting in the House Education Committee.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools

Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.