Colorado lawmakers on Wednesday passed a landmark change to education law that will require teachers to be judged on the performance of their students and put their jobs on the line if they fail.
The final vote came in the state Senate on the last day of the session as senators readopted the House version of the bill. Lawmakers stood and applauded following the 27-8 vote.
More Democrats, including two former teachers, cast votes for the bill the second time around because of a change made in the House allowing an appeals process for teachers who get bad evaluations and are on the verge of losing tenure.
Lawmakers argued over whether it's fair to judge teachers according to student performance, especially when class sizes are growing because of budget cuts, and when parents aren't involved in their child's education. Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, said the debate came down to whether or not people believed that every student, regardless of their income or background, can learn.
"What we're saying is that it matters that every one of those kids will get across the finish line because they're our kids," said Johnston, a freshman lawmaker who spearheaded the change.
The bill now heads to Gov. Bill Ritter, who plans to sign it into law. Backers think it will boost the state's chances of winning $175 million in the second round of the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition.
Under the bill, teachers would be evaluated each year, with at least half of their rating based on whether their students progressed during the school year.
Whether or not their students advance would affect whether they would lose tenure and the right to appeal dismissal that comes with it. Currently, teachers can earn tenure after three years in the classroom.
The details about how that will happen and the criteria teachers will be judged by a council appointed by Ritter.
The bill put Democrats at odds with one of their traditional supporters, the state's largest teachers' union. Many teachers felt betrayed because Ritter had set up a process to figure out how to tie teacher evaluations to student growth in January as part of the state's bid for the first round of Race to the Top. After Colorado lost, Johnston, a former Teach for America teacher and principal, decided to push ahead with a bill that would tie effectiveness to tenure decisions.
Jane Urschel, associate executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said previous attempts to change the evaluation system have failed over the years but this is the first time anyone proposed linking evaluations to tenure decisions. She said only Democrats, given their traditional support for the teachers' union, could tackle the issue, likening it to Nixon going to China.
The bill divided Democrats more sharply in the House, where a core group of teachers-turned-lawmakers fought the bill. They doubted principals would have the time to carefully evaluate teachers and that school districts would have enough money to develop new assessments to evaluate students — and their teachers — not covered by current standardized tests.
But the heart of their opposition was more emotional — frustration with lawmakers rushing ahead to reform education without listening to their experience.
Democratic Rep. Nancy Todd, who spent 25 years teaching, said teachers want to be held accountable but worry that effectiveness will just be measured by the results of testing and not engaging students. She said parents, as well as class size and whether there's extra help, for example, for students with special needs also influence how a student will perform.
"It's not making excuses. It's just saying let's look at the factors," she said.
The Colorado Education Association still opposes the bill but said it was glad that lawmakers slowed down the changes. The details worked out by the governor's council will have to come back to the legislature for approval and teachers with poor evaluations wouldn't be at risk of losing tenure protections until 2015.
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