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Teachers union sues over controversial 2010 tenure law

DENVER — In Colorado’s simmering war over education reform, the long-anticipated shot across the bow from the state’s largest teachers union has finally dropped.

On Wednesday, the Colorado Education Association filed a lawsuit challenging a controversial law, passed four years ago, that changed state laws around the hiring, firing and tenure of public school teachers.

“Normally, you think of a loophole in a law,” said CEA President Kerrie Dallman. “But this law is a sinkhole that has literally swallowed up close to 100 teachers.”

Senate Bill 191, signed into law by Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter as part of an effort expected to win the state federal Race to the Top grant money, changed the way teachers are evaluated, compensated, awarded tenure — which, under the law, can now also be taken away due to poor student performance — hired and fired.

Republicans all supported it, but Democrats were bitterly divided.

Some of the stricter accountability measures so prized by education reformers have long been viewed as punitive by the teachers union, a group that has long succeeded in exercising an outsized influence on Democratic agendas.

But at a press conference Wednesday afternoon, CEA leaders made a point of emphasizing that the lawsuit only challenges the mutual consent portion of the law.

“I can’t state strongly enough that we are not seeking to put a halt to teacher evaluations,” said CEA Vice President Amie Baca-Oehlert. “We are filing in court because we believe every aspect of SB-191 must have a beneficial impact on our students, our teachers, and our communities.”

Now, five years after the bill’s passage, after Colorado has seen the education reform movement assert itself not just at the Capitol but in school board races in Denver and beyond, CEA is desperate for a win in the courts.

“We tried hard last year to bring the parties together in order to settle this litigation, and we are disappointed that our efforts were not successful,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper in a statement. “We believe the law is constitutional and fair in its current application and we intend to defend it in the courts.”

The part of the law in question, “mutual consent”, stipulates that administrators can approve or deny the transfer of a teacher to their school; until SB 191 took effect, administrators were powerless to prevent teachers from being transferred to their schools.

“This is making it easier for principals to get rid of experienced, qualified teachers,” Dallman said.

But the architect of the reform law believes the cases of the plaintiffs, teachers let go by DPS after not being able to find a teaching job with mutual consent in the one year period allowed under the law before a district is able to let them go, aren’t the norm.

“In the small number of cases where you have a teacher who’s interviewed four or five times and been unable to find a placement, it’s clear that person’s not the right fit,” said Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a former principal and teacher who sponsored SB 191.

“In most cases, those folks who are on the open market looking for teaching jobs are getting snatched up right away.”

Hickenlooper, a Democrat who faces reelection this fall, agrees with Johnston.

“Great teachers are the foundation of great schools, and we stand committed to ensuring that every child in Colorado has access to the most effective teachers,” he said in a statement.

“The mutual consent provision in Colorado’s teacher effectiveness law is a critical and common sense policy that allows school leaders to make hiring decisions that best serve students.”

Last year, CEA supported Amendment 66, a failed effort to secure another $1 billion in education funding, even though it would have helped fund many of the reforms included in SB 191.

“This lawsuit should outrage every student, every parent, and every taxpayer in this state,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, in a statement.

“The same union that tried to take another billion dollars from Colorado citizens with Amendment 66, is now trying to create a protected class of substandard workers. Instead of promoting the best teachers for our kids, they are trying to protect the worst ones in our schools. This action is shameful. Our kids deserve the best we can offer them.”

While the legal outcome of the suit is months and possibly years away, its filing is a significant political moment, perhaps the point where Colorado’s increasingly fragile progressive coalition fractures further over what appear to be irreconcilable differences when it comes to education policy.

“For a decade or longer, one of the keys to the dominance of the Democratic Party in Colorado has been their superior degree of party unity,” political analyst Eric Sondermann told FOX31 Denver.

“Democrats have managed to paper over a lot of potential fissures while Republicans have seemed almost permanently and bitterly divided between their various factions.  But this lawsuit may indicate an important rupture, both philosophical and political, in that unified front.

“From the recalls to the troubled roll-out of Obamacare and the Colorado exchange to the voter demolition of Amendment 66, this has been a difficult period for Colorado Democrats.  While they hoped that the new year would mean the turning of the page, this lawsuit could point to a deep internal rift and further political trouble.”

Backers of the landmark reform law downplayed the idea of a possible rift among Democrats, pointing to a recent poll by Denver-based Strategies 360 showing that more than 80 percent of voters support prioritizing teacher performance over seniority when determining layoffs.

“Democrats for Education Reform doesn’t agree with the assertion that there is a fracture in the Democratic Party over education reform,” said Jen Walmer, director of Democrats for Education Reform, in a statement to FOX31 Denver on Wednesday.

“Our polling clearly demonstrates that a large majority of Democratic voters – along with the unaffiliateds and Republicans  – support common sense reforms that were put in place by SB 191. The teachers union is simply out of touch and out of line with Colorado voters priority to ensure great school leaders and teachers are in all of our schools.

“We believe the educational needs of Colorado’s children should be our top priority. Any effort to undermine the reforms of 191 place children second to tired, old special interest politics.”

14 comments

  • John Anigav

    Public school teaching is the only job where you can work 190 days a year and make a mid-five figures with full benefits. All tenure does for teachers is take away their accountability.

    • MSG Chuck

      Blah, Blah, Blah, you have been drinking the GOP cool aid too long. I would love to see you try to teach in a modern classroom…you would not last five minutes…..that is after you go to college for about 6 years and actually become a teacher

    • Robert Winn

      Seriously. A beginning teacher with a 4 year college degree can qualify for government assistance. I have seen new teachers with kids start out qualifying for food stamp and other aide.

      If you do the work, With my masters degree and my contract I make $22.00 and hour. That is counting straight contact time and not al the extra hours I put in. As an autoshop teacher I have my state lic. and my ASE certs. As a private mechanic where I live I could easily pull in $30 to 35 an hour, which is a lot compared to my $22/hour. I would challenege you one time to give teaching a try.

      Simple math. I have 24 students an hour for 7 hours a day for 185 days. A daycare person would make $3.00 perhour per kid just to baby sit. A baby sitter using those numbers would make around $93,000 a year… So tell me where I am making such great money having a master degree and all…

      • Robert Winn

        Why am i not a mechanic if I can make more money? Because I like teaching. I truly do like helping young people find a path in life.

        You can call BS all you want on salary, but I could make and have been offered jobs that pay mid $30s and hour. But I do not have the same joy.

        It is a choice I make, a sacrifice I make for happiness. I like everyone else will always advocate for more pay. I do not know a single person who not take opportunity to increase their pay.

        In the end, this evaluation will have no effect at all on student achievement.

        Also it will have almost no effect on teacher retention. It is just a huge waste of time and money. Bad teachers are the result of lazy administrators. If your a bad teacher the union can not protect you. All the union can do is ensure a process that is fair for teacher dismissal.

        That process includes a growth/improvement plan and time to make needed corrections. If the teachers fails to improve the are dismissed, if they improve then they retain their job. All you need is an administrator willing to do the work!!!

  • J Denver

    Teacher’s unions have long been the most intransigent barrier to meaningful education reform and improved education in the U.S. This does not include all teachers many of whom are dedicated to their profession. The unions are the primary villains in this battle to improve education in America. Moreover, the unions in urban areas are the worst of all. Second only to their efforts to retain their own power, union officials seek to protect the job security of teachers regardless of their effectiveness.

  • Robert Winn

    I hate the new law as does nearly every single educator in the state. First of all the new evaluation system was developed in an attempt to get more federal funding. This was done in order to qualify for Race to The top funds. Which was a complete joke and a total waste on a national level. Infacet it was such a joke that when a person added the money spent by individual states to qualify for the extra federal funding, they found the state spent more collectively than what was availible.

    Furthermore it was a way for the federal government to force thier will into state and local school systems at a huge cost to the states. Ultimately wasting more money on the issue.

    I would much rather see all school based decision be done on a state and local level. Each district should be allowed to determine what they will use for teacher evaluation and as such they would be able to modify and warp the evaluation to best fit the needs of the schools, students, and community. Sorry but all students, all communities, etc. are different and we have tried for far to long to make the one size fits all system work with complete disaster. This new state wide evaluation system is the same exact thing. It will fail to raise students scores or increase graduation rates, all it will do and is currenty doing is wasting money and creating unnecessary paperwork for school districts.

    The new evaluation system has been figured to take a nearly 30 hours to complete per teacher. It also has set up a system where even the best/top teachers are considered average, and has set expectation so high that no teacher can be exemplary (I have never seen a single teacher who could score exemplary in all areas). It is simply impossible.

    The worse part of the entire deal is connecting my evaluation to my students scores. Until the test scores matter to the student (IE graduate or not graduate, pass the 4th grade or not pass the 4th grade). The students could care less about some stupid test. Infact some intentionally fail because they believe it will get the teacher fired.

    Sorry but teacher evaluation is not the way we are going to lift our educational system out of the dumps. It does not address the social issues that are far more influencial on student success than the evaluation can be…

    • Robert Winn

      No actually the new law has not effected me in any real way. I do not hate it because it has made my life harder, I hate it as it has shifted funds away books, materials, etc. It has instead forced schools to hire evaluation specialist, or to add additional administrators, etc.

      I will love it in 5 to 10 years to look back and see that there has been no improvement to student achievement due to this new unfunded mandate.

      I just wish we would get the federal government out our schools and let the local school boards and parents decide what is best for the students!

  • Stella Cypher

    The News keeps reporting this as a “Tenure” law. Teachers do not have tenure in this state. There is no accountability to parents who do nothing to help educate THEIR children. Honestly, would you fire a doctor if a patient continues to smoke or be obese despite their best efforts? Do you expect mail carriers to deliver packages that are not properly prepared? Do you blame police for the crime? Teachers deal with children in kindergarten who have never been read a book or cannot even speak a complete sentence. Students are expected to be proficient on all tests even if they have 5 or more years’ deficit of education when they start school. Most teachers work very hard and are more than willing to be accountable for the things in their control. But the bill is unfair and YOU the taxpayer are forking so much money on evaluations and assessments that much of your dollars are not going to the classroom. Stop by and visit a classroom for a day.

  • Codswallop Hogwash

    Of course.
    The Teacher’s Union wants us to pay for incompetent teachers.
    The Teacher’s Union wants us to continue to employ incompetent teachers.
    Just say NO! to the greedy Teacher’s Unions

  • Fast45

    Squash the CEA and all similar communist mindsets. End the protection rackets … same for police, firefighters, plumbers, pilots, Postal workers, etc. You are NOT entitled to a job, and you shouldn’t pay protection money to goons in order to keep one.

    Unions are for those whose performance level is inadequate to compete in the workplace, or those who cannot speak for themselves.

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