One of the last actions taken by the 2010 legislature–the bipartisan passage of tenure reform for the state’s public schoolteachers–is calling into question the once-solid alliance between the Colorado Education Association and Democratic state lawmakers.
Thirteen of the Senate’s 21 ruling Democrats as well as eight of the House’s majority Democrats joined all Republicans voting in both chambers on Wednesday to send the groundbreaking proposal to Gov. Bill Ritter, who endorsed it earlier this year.
“The Democratic party and the CEA usually agree on issues,” said Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Arvada, who is vice chair of the Senate Education Committee and the only one of its members to have voted against the bill. “Damage has been done, trust has been lost– how much is hard to know right now.”
The bill’s passage, which came despite concerted opposition from the 40,000-member union, also has some GOP lawmakers now wondering if the CEA’s clout as one of the perennial heavyweights of state politics may be ebbing.
Senate Bill 191 provides sweeping reforms regarding the evaluation and retention of K-12 teachers, changing the way they achieve and hold onto tenure. Among its other provisions, the bill says teachers who receive unsatisfactory ratings twice in a row could lose their tenured status and possibly their jobs. The measure meanwhile is expected to keep Colorado in the running for federal Race to the Top education dollars, awarded to states showing the most innovative education reforms, including enhancing teacher proficiency.
Its bipartisan sponsors, Democrat Michael Johnston, of Denver, and Republican Nancy Spence, of Centennial, in the Senate along with Democrat Christine Scanlan, of Dillon, and Republican Carole Murray, of Castle Rock, in the House, have deftly handled its journey through the legislative process. They’ve had to navigate their way around the CEA, Colorado’s largest union, which bitterly opposed the bill with a PR blitz and a lobbying campaign that has mustered hundreds of teachers at a time at the State Capitol.
Johnston, who downplays talk of a wedge between his party and the union, says he knew he would be stepping into controversy when he first approached the CEA last December with his outline for tenure reform, proposing sweeping change on a priority the CEA views as non-negotiable—protection of teacher tenure.
“These are big changes and big changes are always hard,” said Johnston. “My negotiations with the CEA have been very warm and they’ve been very honest and up front. I think from the outside it has looked a lot more contentious than it was from the inside.”
Republicans were more blunt.
“Tenure has been a bottom line issue for teachers unions forever,” said Spence, a veteran sponsor of wide-ranging education-reform proposals in both chambers and under both Democratic and Republican legislative majorities. “The CEA is nothing but a labor union—let’s admit that. Their interest is in protecting their membership.”
Spence, who has locked horns with the CEA for years, said she believes that the passage of bipartisan sanctioned tenure reform will have an effect on the unions’s longstanding relationship with the Democratic party.
“This bill is such a threat to the core of what CEA stands for. I’m sure this has been a humiliation to the folks at CEA … in a Democratic-led legislature with a Democratic governor, to lose an issue that represents their heart and soul,” said Spence. “I think this bill transcends CEA power.”
Hudak said she finds it odd that the reform is happening under Democratic leadership.
“When the Republicans had control of the House, Senate and governor’s office they didn’t try and change tenure,” said Hudak. “If the Republicans didn’t want to take it on I can’t see why the Democrats would be willing to do that and jeopardize our best friends, the CEA.”
Murray, a former teacher and wife of a public school principal, said that she believes that the Democratic lawmakers who support the measure are doing so because of the federal Race to the Top dollars that may become available with passage of SB191 and that the Democratic holdouts on the bill are staunch union supporters.
“The strongest advocates for the CEA are the legislators who are former teachers and members of the Democratic caucus that are pro-union,” said Murray. “I also think that Race to the Top put this issue over the top.”
Because the measure has the support of the Colorado Department of Education and groups such as the Colorado Association of School Executives, Murray said she believes it’s just a matter of time before the CEA will be forced to recognize that it will not be able to have as much sway over the Democratic party.
“It’s just one of those things whose time has come,” said Murray.
Johnston counters that he is optimistic about the future relationship with Democratic lawmakers and the CEA despite the bruising that has occurred.
“It’s a disagreement that will take some collaboration and healing,” he said. “I think what’s going to happen is that we’re all going to realize that we disagreed on this issue but on all the big issues that are coming we’re going to be absolute partners.”