Tenure reform in Colo: Now comes the hard part

Given the difficult, courageous, and ultimately successful legislative battle they just waged, the supporters of Colorado’s landmark teacher tenure reform bill –SB-191- should not be denied a brief moment of celebration over an initiative that is already winning high praise across the nation. Nonetheless in the cold light of morning they must surely be aware that the greatest obstacles to the implementation of this potentially transformational law yet lie ahead. They should also be under no illusions about the skill and tenacity which teacher unions will exhibit in their continuing opposition to SB-191. Similarly they should be aware of the sad fate of other past reform initiatives that began with much fanfare but ended in failure.

As with all complex and far-reaching legislation “The Devil is in the Details” for SB-191. As it begins the journey from Governor’s signature to statewide implementation in 2013-14 SB-191 will move from the bright spotlight of media attention and public awareness to the less illuminated precincts of an intricate process of recommendations by the governor’s Council on Educator Effectiveness defining “what is an effective teacher”, review and approval of same by the State Board of Education and the Legislature, and pilot programs in several school districts in 2012-13. At each stage of this process SB-191 will be susceptible to “improvements” and at each stage union influence will be anything but absent.

Another major obstacle is the matter of who will pay for this reform. Without question the lure of millions of federal dollars attached to the Race To The Top program (RTTT) was a substantial motivator for cash strapped Colorado to pass SB-191. Visions of the six hundred million dollars divided between Delaware and Tennessee in the first round of funding understandably weighed heavily with legislators completing a season of brutal budget cuts and anticipating even more severe cuts next year.

While SB-191 will certainly burnish Colorado’s reform credentials, future RTTT funding is no slam dunk. It should be remembered that a major reason cited by the U.S. Dept. of Education in its’ awards to Delaware and Tennessee was those states had near 100% pledges of support from their local teacher unions.

As the Washington Post pointed out in an article entitled “In Race to the Top, It Helps to Wear the Union Label” several other reform friendly states- including Colorado- were marked down precisely because they lacked such pledges.

Very instructive is the recent experience of Florida where the legislature passed a sweeping teacher quality bill which included merit pay and the phasing out of tenure. The President of the Florida Teachers Union (FEA) bluntly warned that the State’s application for round two RTTT dollars was doomed if that bill became law. Soon thereafter Republican Governor Charlie Crist vetoed the bill giving as one of his reasons that he didn’t want to jeopardize Florida’s chances for RTTT funding.

Among those testifying against SB-191 was the President of the National Education Association. In the NEA’s view they may have lost a battle in Colorado, but they know they will get another turn at bat in Washington where political appointees will set the rules, select the reviewers, name winners, and allocate dollars in all future rounds of RTTT funding. In this context one is reminded of the words of the legendary teacher union leader Albert Shanker when his opposition to teacher reform was criticized as “not thinking about the kids.” Said Shanker with brutal candor, “I’ll start worrying about the kids when kids start paying dues to the union.”

In the end however those legislators who voted for SB-191, particularly those Democrats who courageously crossed the aisle at considerable risk to themselves, did not do so for the money, or political advantage, or because this was a perfect piece of legislation. Rather they acted because it was a reasonable address to one of the greatest deficiencies plaguing American public education- the lack of effective mechanisms of teacher assessment which strike a decent balance between the rights of educators and the needs of children. In doing so they manifested something we used to call civic virtue. For this they deserve not just our praise, but more importantly our strong support as they seek to shepherd this still fragile initiative forward to successful realization.


Centennial Fellow William Moloney was Colorado Education Commissioner, 1997-2007. His columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Baltimore Sun.

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