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Left in Colorado worried about education reform they can’t control

By | April 11th, 2013

Defenders of the status quo, as well as self-styled progressives, appear to be worried about education reform in Colorado that they can’t control.

In 2010, they suffered a major loss when Colorado enacted, arguably, the strongest teacher tenure reform in the nation, Senate Bill 191.

Today, education reformers nationally have even more backing from multi-state organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), Stand for Children and StudentsFirst, to name just a few.

Of course, our view is that the Total School Choice model, as described by John Carson, president of the Douglas County (Colo.). Board of Education, is the way to go.

The left in Colorado, however, only wants reform on its terms.

On March 26, the “ United States of ALEC,” a purported expose of the American Legislative Exchange Council, was screened in Denver. Afterward, Elena Nunez of Colorado Common Cause moderated a panel discussion. During the Q&A session, a woman directed the following comment to the panel at 49:30 in the video above.

“It sounds like we’re looking at this as a Republican versus Democrat issue,” she said. “And, I think there’s a lot of Democrats that are very dirty in this. Looking at [state] Sen. Michael Johnston, Senate Bill 191 author, and… he’s also coming out with his current bill for refocusing the finance of education, which I have real concerns about. It has lots of really pretty wording in it. And, I think that the astro-turfing…the astro-turf organizing…the Democrats for Education Reform, which is purely ALEC-type of stuff. I think one of our problems is if we’re focusing on Democrat versus Republican instead of looking progressive versus corporate, we need to really re-speak the, rethink our language.”

Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, responded with this comment…

[51:44] “A lot of the corporate money and money that comes directly out of New York City from hedge-fund managers…Democrats for Education Reform is a good example of that. Stand for Children is another group in the state that all pushed Senate Bill 191 and other reforms that have been taking place here in Colorado…”

“One of the things that we can’t forget – and I’ve mentioned this when Senate Bill 191 passed – which we fought at the time vigorously because some of the things in there that we felt were very punitive towards teachers…that was done under a Democratic legislature with a Democratic governor. And what they did is they picked off just enough Democratic legislators – and the Republicans as a bloc stood back and watched the infighting happen in the caucus – and voted as a bloc with the small number of Democrats that passed the legislation.”

Salazar’s answer indicates that the CEA, the state’s largest teacher union with some 38,000 members, is still reeling from its major legislative defeat in 2010 when “The Great Teachers and Leaders Act (SB 191)”—a landmark teacher effectiveness and accountability bill - passed a Democratic-controlled legislature and was signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat.

It’s worth recounting that history (see below).

Salazar’s comments reflect what appears to be a schism among Democratic Party constituencies between education reformers and anti-reform defenders of the status quo, working to barricade a bloated and under-performing public education system.

This year’s big school reform initiative in Colorado is Johnston’s SB-213, a rewrite of the School Finance Act. But that has a different political complexion because it comes with a potential price tag of $1 billion in increased taxes for schools and would have to go before voters in a referendum after approval by the legislature.  [See also Vince Carroll's column in the Denver Post here.]  We’ve reported previously on those efforts by Johnston, D-Denver, and state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. On April 2, Democrats in the state Senate voted on a party line, 20-15, to refer the measure to the ballot this November. It now faces action in the Colorado House.

“We are examining SB 213 to see how it will impact the growth and achievement of students across Colorado and the vitality of the education profession,” Salazar said in mid-March. “We agree with much of the bill’s premise and components, but believe there is room to improve it to properly address education funding.”

SB 213 this year may not face the heat from the left in Colorado that SB 191 did in 2010. Earlier at the March 26 event, Alan Franklin, the political director of ProgressNow Colorado, said this about SB 191 at 40:20 in the video above…

“There are bills occasionally that come through with ALEC that attract some measure of bi-partisan support. An example of that was a bill that my organization opposed in 2010 called Senate Bill 191. It’s called the Great Teachers and Leaders Act - very duplicitously named in my opinion. It instituted educator effectiveness standards that are still in the process of being worked out. All of this reflects the right-wing education agenda, let’s be very clear, even though it anecdotally had some Democratic support.”

The emergence of organizations like Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) - which touted the SB 191 effort as “Creating a Winning Legislative Campaign: the Colorado Story” - continues to put pressure on the status quo and progressives.

In addition to Johnston and state Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, who sponsored SB 191, prominent DFER members include current House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia. Additionally, former House Speaker Terrance Carroll, former state Senate president Peter Groff, and former state Sen. Ron Tupa serve on the organization’s national speakers bureau.

The burgeoning education reform movement is now recognized by both major parties, as well as by a number of prominent progressives. Take, for example, the Democratic mayor of Los Angeles - as the Huffington Post’s Jon Ward noted in September-during the 2012 DNC in Charlotte:

“But it is hard to paint the school reform movement as a right-wing conspiracy. Support for taking on teachers’ unions is growing in Democratic and liberal circles. The best example of this might be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former organizer with United Teachers Los Angeles who is in favor of greater school choice and teacher accountability.”

Memo to opponents of real education reform such as Messrs. Salazar and Franklin: It’s about the kids, not defending the system.

Below is some background on SB-191 in Colorado and why it was so controversial among Democrats.

“Teachers will have to demonstrate effectiveness for three consecutive years before earning tenure, officially known as non-probationary status. They could lose that status after two consecutive years of ineffective ratings. Non-probationary status currently is irreversible,” reported The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on May 20, 2010.

Two other key provisions of the bill were that it:

1) Requires that all teachers and principals receive an annual evaluation, and

2) Bases at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation on student academic growth.

The Colorado Statesman reported on May 14 about the impressive bipartisan support SB 191 garnered:

“The so-called teacher-tenure bill passed the House 36-29 Tuesday after a series of potentially threatening parliamentary maneuvers, including a brief filibuster by Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Englewood. On Wednesday, the Senate accepted House amendments by a vote of 27-8 and sent the bill to Gov. Bill Ritter, who has said he will sign the bill.”

The margins of passage in both chambers were strong:

“In the Senate, 13 of the body’s 21 Democrats voted yes. The original April 29 Senate vote was 21-14. Eight Democrats and the House’s one independent [Rep. Kathleen Curry, I.-Gunnison] joined 27 Republicans in supporting the measure in that chamber. reported by EdNews Colorado on May 12, 2010” (List of Democrats who voted yes.)

The Democrats had a +7 majority over Republicans in the state Senate in 2010 – a ratio of 21:14. In the House, their majority was even greater at 37:27 (and 1 independent). In other words, SB 191’s sponsors were very successful at winning strong Democratic support.   In 2013, the partisan divide in both chambers is tighter at 20:15 in the Senate and 37:28 in the House, which should give reformers an added advantage in forging bipartisan majorities.

In addition to chief sponsor and then-freshman state Sen. Mike Johnston, the bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Christine Scanlan, D.-Dillon. Both Johnston and Scanlan are advisory board members of Democrats for Education Reform; Johnson is a former teacher and principal. Scanlan was a school board member who now serves as director of legislative affairs for Gov. John Hickenlooper. Republican co-sponsors were state Sen. Nancy Spence, R.-Centennial, and state Rep. Carole Murray, R.-Castle Rock, a former teacher.

Gov. Ritter signed the bill on May 20, 2010. During a press conference spotlighting the bill’s enactment, Ritter pointed out that the legislation, which essentially eliminated unconditional lifetime tenure, for teachers was opposed by the Colorado Education Association (CEA) but supported by the smaller Colorado affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. It also won the endorsement of Randi Weingarten, AFT’s national president, reported The Wall Street Journal.

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