Unlikely alliance of far left and right roils testing reform debate

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DENVER — In a session defined thus far by partisan gridlock, Colorado lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper have expressed optimism about bipartisan cooperation on legislation to reform the standardized testing regimen for K-12 students.

But now that’s gotten sticky too — and not because the far left and the far right are again at loggerheads, but because, strangely enough, they’re working together.

A coalition of some┬ástrange political bedfellows appears to be united around an alternative to a┬ábipartisan bill aimed at scaling back required testing and assessments; an alternative that includes controversial provisions that would blow a huge hole in Hickenlooper’s READ Act, passed in 2012 to improve literacy rates, and weaken the core of Senate Bill 191, passed in 2009, which dictates that teachers be evaluated largely based on their student’s academic growth.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, who represents conservative Douglas County, where the GOP-controlled school board has basically neutered the teacher’s union in recent years and where opposition to Common Core standards — and uniform academic standards, generally — runs high.

Here’s the weird part: Holbert has been working on his bill with the Colorado Education Association, the state’s biggest teacher’s union (although they don’t represent teachers in Douglas County), which has tried and thus far failed to roll back provisions of S.B. 191 after challenges at the legislature and in the courts.

“Finding out that some Republicans are willing to carry CEA’s water is a head-scratcher,” a top adviser to Hickenlooper said last week.

The draft bill, obtained by FOX31 Denver but yet to be introduced, would repeal the existing state law governing statewide testing, leaving much of the assessment decisions up to local teachers and school officials across the state’s 178 districts.

It also seeks to prevent the state from collecting information related to literacy rates as required under the READ Act.

Most controversially, the bill allows a school district “to determine whether student academic performance will be included in measuring the performance of licensed personnel”; moreover, if the district does look at student academic growth, it can only account for 20 percent of a teacher’s overall evaluated effectiveness (it accounts for 50 percent of the evaluation currently under S.B. 191).

“For us it’s less about 191 and more about the high-stakes nature that surrounds the tests,” said CEA’s Julie Whitacre, who noted that her organization is non-partisan and has worked with Republicans, including Holbert, before.

“What we’ve heard from parents loudly and teachers loudly is not just that there’s so many of them and an over-burden but that the high-stakes nature of them is also causing a problem. We’re trying to roll-back the high-stakes nature of all this.”

Holbert, according to one Republican observer of the legislature, reached out to CEA out of concern that he otherwise couldn’t get the measure through the Democrat-controlled House.

On Tuesday, the senator told FOX31 Denver his draft is simply a “working document” that includes the ideas of a number of stakeholders from CEA to Douglas County reformers and parents.

“This is not some unholy alliance between left and right,” Holbert said. “In fact, it’s coming from parents — on the left and the right, who are more engaged and informed about education policy than ever before.

“We’ve seen parents become uncomfortable with Common Core and PARCC; but what’s really touched a nerve with moms across the political spectrum is over testing. They’re seeing PARRC as a barrier to learning in the classroom — that gets Rs and Ds together.”

The inclusion of the union’s proposed changed to the teacher tenure law has rankled the business community and conservatives worried about an alignment between unions and activists who hate Common Core so much they’re actually willing to undermine teacher effectiveness standards that have nothing to do with it.

Colorado Succeeds, a coalition of area business leaders, has been “absolutely crushing Republicans for going near 191,” according to one highly-placed GOP operative.

Just Monday afternoon, a number of conservative education reformers, including Earl Wright who has backed the reforms of the board in Douglas County, and former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to reduce the volume of statewide testing but to maintain a uniform measure of assessment and to eschew any attempts to undermine S.B. 191, the teacher accountability law that passed with every GOP lawmaker voting yes.

“We will actively work to defeat any effort that would roll back this important progress,” the letter states. “Giving a blank check to a school district to ignore student growth in the evaluation of teachers would be a dramatic step backwards for our state.”

Holbert acknowledged the pushback Tuesday morning.

“There seems to be more comfort discussing the frequency of assessments than changing the language [of S.B. 191] from [student achievement making up] more than 50 percent of teacher assessments to no more than 20 percent,” he said.

“But I am open to leaving some more flexibility to the districts on this.”

It’s possible the Holbert bill doesn’t get introduced, just used as leverage to strengthen the local control provisions of Senate Bill 215, a bipartisan measure introduced last week that includes many of the recommendations of a task-force convened last year to streamline and simplify statewide testing and assessments.

“We know we’ve got to do something and there is consensus around increasing local control,” said Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, the Senate Education Committee chairman and the bill’s co-sponsor along with Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

S.B. 215 does not impact the teacher effectiveness law passed in 2009.

“We tried to take everything we could from the [House Bill] 1202 task-force that we could implement without it affecting federal funding,” said Kerr.

But there’s a high probability S.B. 215 doesn’t go far enough for activists on both sides of the political divide.

“It does very little to actually reduce testing,” CEA’s Whitacre said. “Colorado remains far above the number of tests given compared to what is required by federal government.

“We would like to go to federal minimums and see some streamlining of the assessments required around kindergarten readiness and READ Act and to provide more flexibility to teachers and schools about when to administer those assessments.”

Whitacre characterized CEA as generally supportive of Holbert’s bill overall but wouldn’t say if the organization would continue to support it should the Republican, under mounting pressure from the right, remove the portion of the measure affecting the teacher effectiveness law.

She also brushed aside the political risk of joining up with many of the same conservative education activists who’ve leveled collective bargaining for teachers in Douglas County and advanced a controversial re-write of the A.P. U.S. History curriculum in Jefferson County based on fears that the lessons were anti-American?

“To represent our members, this is what we’ve got to do.”

The sponsor and author of S.B. 191, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, was unavailable for comment Monday; but other Democrats blasted CEA’s move.

“Partnering with a movement that persistently attempts to undermine public education seems shockingly short-sighted,” one high-level Democratic operative told FOX31 Denver.