How President Obama is bringing real education reform to Colorado

Today is the final day of the 2010 Colorado legislature, and cautious optimists are looking forward to final passage of Senate Bill 191, a dramatic reform of Colorado’s tenure system for public school teachers. To be precise, after three years, Colorado teachers get a set of “due process” rights, not tenure, but the effect is to make it nearly impossible for ineffective teachers to be fired. Senate Bill 191, sponsored by Denver Democrat and former public school principal Michael Johnston, would change all that.

In brief, the bill would replace the current system of gaining tenure (work three years without getting fired) with a requirement for three consecutive years of teaching success. Tenure could be lost, however, based on two consecutive years of teaching failure. After that, a school district could choose not to rehire a teacher for the next school year, but if so, the teacher would be entitled to an appeals process. The appeal amendment was added yesterday, and was the price of getting the bill though the Colorado House.

Fifty percent of what constitutes “success” would be based on the academic progress made by students during the school year, according to objective tests. The other 50% is to be based on objective criteria to be established by the State Board of Education. The metrics must take into account factors such as “student mobility” (e.g., students whose live with one parent who has no fixed address, and who only attend school sporadically), which of course make academic progress much more difficult.

Senate Bill 191 is supported by the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Children’s Campaign (which Colorado’s current Lt. Governor, Barbara O’Brien, used to head), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Democratic Governor Bill Ritter, all Republicans in the state legislature, and a critical mass of pro-reform legislative Democrats. It is opposed by the Colorado Education Association, which has a much larger membership in Colorado than the AFT.

A crucial reason why the bill appears headed for passage this year is the federal “Race to the Top” grants program, administered by the US Department of Education. Race to the Top does not hand out grants promiscuously, but instead awards grants to a few states based on detailed programs for dramatic reform. Only Delaware and Tennessee won grants in the first round. Once it became clear that Colorado needed tenure reform in order to have a realistic chance in round two, Senate Bill 191 began to gain momentum in the legislature. In short, Race to the Top is helping to foster bipartisan reform.

In a January 2009 op-ed, Picking Duncan as Schools Chief, Obama Sides with Kids, the Independence Institute expressed hopes that Obama administration education policies would deliver real change, and rather than being controlled by the National Education Association. Although we were disappointed that Obama killed the DC voucher program, Obama has continued the Bush policy of strongly supporting charter schools, and Obama, unlike Bush, is helping to reform tenure so that teachers with an established record of ineffectiveness can be moved aside and new teachers given an opportunity.

If enacted, Senate Bill 191 will take several years to be put into full effect. Further, it is undoubtedly true that the most important single cause of low academic achievement is not poor teaching, but home environments that provide no support for literacy or any other intellectual skill. But better teachers can make an imporant difference for many students, and the Obama/Duncan Race to the Top program has been a sine qua non for tenure reform in Colorado.

Generally speaking, I favor much less federal involvement in local education, which is why I disagreed with Bush’s No Child Left Behind, even though NCLB had many good features. In fact, I would prefer that the federal Department of Education be abolished. But President Obama wasn’t elected to abolish the DOE. He was elected to deliver Change We Can Believe In, and in the Race to the Top program, President Obama and Secretary Duncan are providing the leadership for constructive change.