Tuesday, July 13, 2010

States Create Flood of Education Bills

Published: May 31, 2010

DENVER — Democrats backed by the state’s largest teachers’ union nicknamed legislation overhauling Colorado’s tenure and evaluation rules the “teacher scapegoat” bill, and several lawmakers wept in public sessions during their monthlong battle to stop it.

But other Democrats joined with Republicans to pass Colorado’s law, the most comprehensive of a dozen similar bills passed around the nation this year, in part to increase states’ chances in a $4 billion federal grant competition.

Louisiana, Oklahoma and New York also approved bills modifying their tenure and evaluation rules in the last week, just in time to meet Tuesday’s application deadline for Round 2 of the competition, known as Race to the Top.

This flood of legislation, along with new rules in many states allowing for more charter schools, pioneering union contracts in several cities and a state-led effort to rewrite the nation’s academic standards, have made this spring a watershed period, said Jon Schnur, an education adviser to the Obama campaign who helped design Race to the Top.

“It’s been one of the most important seasons for education reform in American history,” Mr. Schnur said.

Colorado’s law, passed last month, requires that school principals evaluate teachers’ classroom effectiveness each year, and that at least half of their rating be tied to student achievement. The law withholds tenure until rookie teachers have taught effectively for three years, and says tenured teachers performing poorly for two years in a row can lose job security and be fired.

It reflects an emerging national consensus on the importance of studying teachers’ work before giving job security or raises, said Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that published a report last year calling attention to weaknesses in teacher evaluation systems. In most school districts, virtually all teachers, good or bad, routinely get a satisfactory evaluation, it found.

In Race to the Top’s 500-point scoring system, states can earn at least 58 points for developing more robust evaluation systems and using them to make staffing decisions, like who should get tenure.

The two winners of the competition’s first round in March — Delaware, which won $100 million, and Tennessee, which won $500 million — scored highly for well-developed evaluation systems. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said he will award the remaining $3.4 billion to “10 to 15” states in the second round, with finalists announced in August.

Not all states are competing. Ten decided not to participate in Round 1, including Texas, which called the competition a federal intrusion on its right to set education policies. In recent weeks, Alaska and Kansas cited similar reasons as they pulled out of Round 2. Indiana and Minnesota also quit the race, saying they could not overcome teachers’ union opposition to school initiatives they said would have been crucial to their chances.

But with states across the nation facing huge budget shortfalls, governors, legislators, mayors and educators in about three dozen states have been working to win Race to the Top money by bringing their school policies in line with President Obama’s education agenda.

In several states, the process has produced conflict. In Rhode Island, a school board seeking to follow administration policies on failing schools fired all 87 teachers at its high school, provoking protests. Eventually the teachers agreed to teach a longer school day, and a settlement allowed them to keep their jobs.

In Florida, teacher protests over a bill that would have linked teacher pay to student test scores and eliminated the tenure system for all newly hired teachers persuaded Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, to veto it in April.

Colorado’s debate over the same themes was just as passionate, partly because thousands of teacher layoffs are on the horizon here, and teacher effectiveness will be considered before seniority in deciding who gets pink slips once the new law takes effect in 2014.

The politics of the debate here, which divided both Democrats and unionized teachers over how to handle school overhaul issues, could resonate in Congress when Mr. Obama seeks to rewrite the main federal law on public schools.

The Colorado law’s author, State Senator Mike Johnston, an alumnus of Teach for America who worked on the Obama campaign, rallied support from business executives, civil rights leaders and many school groups. But the Colorado Education Association — the state’s biggest teachers’ union, representing 40,000 teachers — persuaded most Democratic lawmakers to oppose it.

The union fought the bill because it would diminish teachers’ tenure protections, and because teachers resented the argument that Colorado had to pass the bill so as not to jeopardize the state’s chances in Race to the Top, said Deborah Fallin, an association spokeswoman.

“First we tried to kill it, and then we tried to fix it” by adding amendments, Ms. Fallin said.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the largest national teachers’ union, which is the Colorado association’s parent, testified against the bill here in April.

“President Obama has said that he wants to reform education by working with educators, not doing it to them,” Mr. Van Roekel said. “What is being proposed here today is the opposite.”

But Brenda Smith, president of the Colorado affiliate of the other national union, the American Federation of Teachers, was negotiating amendments, including establishment of an appeals process when teachers lose tenure because of two years of “ineffective” ratings.

Ms. Smith eventually endorsed the bill, and so did Randi Weingarten, the federation’s national president.

“Why not be in the forefront of change instead of letting other people do it to you?” Ms. Smith said.

Although Ms. Smith’s affiliate represents only one sizable Colorado district, with 2,500 members in Denver’s southern suburbs, Mr. Johnston said its endorsement helped persuade Democrats. “A.F.T. support was a game changer,” he said.

In the final voting, most of the Democrats in the General Assembly voted against the bill, but every single Republican in both chambers voted for it, along with Democrats who call themselves education reformers.

Representative Judy Solano, a Democrat who was a classroom teacher for 29 years, voted against.

“The bill made teachers the scapegoats for all the inadequacies of public education,” Ms. Solano said.

But Representative Christine Scanlan, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said it was not unfair to teachers because, among other reasons, it provided new avenues for them and their schools to improve instruction.

“Changing course in education is slow, like turning a tanker,” Ms. Scanlan said. But out of concern over the crisis in public education, she said, “Colorado decided to do something significant, fast.”

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