Colorado Senate passes education-reform bill |

Colorado Senate passes education-reform bill

Jeremy P. Meyer and Jessica Fender
The Denver Post

Colorado’s Senate on Thursday night passed a controversial teacher reform bill after rejecting a number of amendments that would have eliminated many of the legislation’s core concepts.

The bill, which has the support of Gov. Bill Ritter, now is expected to face a tougher challenge in the House.

The Senate will give the bill a third reading today, and the legislation is expected to be introduced into the House education committee Monday.

“This is a monumental change,” said Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder. “I hope none of us underestimate what we are doing in terms of a sea change in an organization that is one of the key components of our democracy.”

Senate Bill 191 would tie 50 percent of an evaluation for principals and teachers to student academic growth and would change the way teachers get and keep tenure. And many observers think its passage would give Colorado a better shot at winning $175 million in the federal Race to the Top education-fund competition.

“This is one of those right-side-of- history votes,” said Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction. “I want to commend the senators who have had the courage on the Democratic side to stand up and do the right thing.”

Stiff opposition by union

The legislation, which has been vociferously opposed by the teachers union, revealed a deep divide in the Democratic Party.

Republicans have loudly approved of the bipartisan bill that was co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

The legislation calls for historic changes to previously sacrosanct tenets guarded by the Colorado Education Association, specifically teacher tenure. The bill’s success is largely because more Democrats are on board.

Traditionally, most Democrats have been aligned on issues with the CEA, the state’s largest contributor to legislative candidates.

But Thursday, the division in the party was apparent when Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, who is a champion of the teachers union, offered a series of amendments that tried to reroute many of the major changes in the bill.

Hudak sought to remove the most controversial part of the legislation, which would remove teachers’ tenured status after two consecutive years of ineffective ratings.

“This is the heart of all of the objections to this bill,” Hudak said. “I want you to come down to the heart of disagreement of this. If you remove this part, everyone will support this bill. The civil war will end. We will move this process along.”

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, agreed that the change is controversial but said that it is important for the bill to have any meaning.

“I know this is hard, particularly on our side, to go through this change. I know there is some discomfort, but I think there is a new place to go.”

The amendment failed.

Hudak also wanted to give tenured teachers a chance to appeal any ineffective rating to an independent moderator instead of the superintendent. That too failed.

“I don’t understand what your fear of this is,” Hudak asked her fellow senators. “Do you fear that teachers will complain about this? Usually ineffective teachers are counseled out.”

Even an amendment that would have allowed teachers to pay half of the fee for an independent moderator failed.

Romer, however, told his Republican colleagues that they had better remember this vote when Democrats come back to ask for more money for K-12 education.

There had been tears and raised voices at Tuesday’s Democratic caucus meeting, where many got their first full look at the bill, which could have a tough go with House Democrats in the waning days of the session.

Striking at hearts of Dems

The fate of Colorado teachers and the union processes that support them strikes at the hearts of many caucus members, a handful of whom have taught in Colorado’s classrooms.

Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, a rising star among House Democrats, is co-sponsoring Senate Bill 191 and bore much of the brunt of her party’s frustrations.

“People feel very strongly about this. It’s very personal,” she said. “We needed to air everything. But the caucus is stronger than any one bill.”

Not everyone is so certain.

Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, has a number of problems with the legislation, including what he describes as a tendency for officials to leap at “fad solutions” while ignoring what schools actually need: more money.

He said lawmakers who have spent their Capitol careers focusing on education issues were excluded from the drafting table on SB 191.

“People are frustrated with the process. They don’t understand why a very divisive and potentially detrimental bill is being slammed through,” Pommer said. “It’s dividing the caucus. It’s causing some lasting divisions.”

Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367 or

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