07/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Colorado Is Ground Zero

Over the next 10 days or so, Colorado will sit dead center in the debate over how to improve public education in this country. Senate Bill 10-191, which would make significant changes to teacher tenure and teacher evaluation in Colorado, will make its way--or fail to--through the Colorado House of Representatives beginning this week. It has already passed the Senate.

A Florida bill with some similarities to SB 10-191 (but much harsher changes to tenure) was vetoed last month by Gov. Charlie Crist, earning him a lifetime's exile from the Republican Party. Now the National Education Association is turning its heavy guns on Colorado, hoping to bury state Sen. Mike Johnston's bill before it becomes law.

Their chances of success look pretty good. The NEA, the Colorado Education Association and local teachers' unions are powerful lobbying machines. The perception that Johnston's bill is anti-teacher, that it seeks to blame teachers alone for the failures of American public education, seem to be taking root, at least in some quarters.

In a decidedly unscientific survey, comments on the Education News Colorado web site and blog are running against the bill by a substantial margin. Whether this is the result of an orchestrated campaign is anyone's guess.

It is going to be one heck of a fight, and the stakes could not be higher. SB 10-191 represents a major gamble by local proponents of Obama-Duncan reforms, because its failure would alter the course of reform in Colorado in unpredictable ways. It would almost certainly kill any chance the state might have to win $175 million in round two Race to the Top money.

A visit to Denver last week by Diane Ravitch, the highest-profile opponent of Race to the Top, underscored how much disagreement there is, here and across the nation, about best way forward. Ravitch said she hoped SB 10-191 would fail, because it is unduly punitive and scapegoats teachers.

She also urged all states, including Colorado, to run away from Race to the Top as fast as possible because, she said, it is built on the rotten foundation of No Child Left Behind.

It's interesting to note that Ravitch's visit was sponsored in large part by local foundations with whom she disagrees on these issues (and who are funders of EdNews).

As I've said before, I hope Johnston's bill passes. It's far from perfect. But many of the most prominent arguments against it border on fear-mongering. And the alternative seems to be doing nothing. This may be what the unions not-so-secretly want, but standing pat would be catastrophic.

In the past couple of months, however, I have sensed a shift in momentum on these big education questions. Until recently, people pushing school choice and the revamp of tenure and evaluation - the Obama-Duncan agenda - seemed to have the energy and mojo on their side.

Lately, though, the passion and commitment seems stronger among those fighting those reforms. The unions and their supporters are newly energized, and are waging an effective campaign against the changes. Their victory in Florida pumped them full of new life.

Unfortunately, I don't see people fighting the Obama-Duncan agenda putting forth any affirmative ideas of their own. But hey, if being the "party of no" is working for the GOP, why shouldn't it work for the so-called progressives trying to kill SB-191?

One reason momentum may have shifted is because people who support these changes have a more nuanced perspective. Take an recent Education Week blog post by Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. While voicing support for SB 10-191, he acknowledged it and similar bills in other states have major flaws, and urged legislators to slow down and take on these complex issues one bite at a time.

...the impatient rush to "fix" teacher quality in one furious burst of legislating is leading to troublesome overreaching and putting the cart before the horse. The result: hugely promising efforts to uproot outdated and stifling arrangements get enveloped in crudely drawn, sketchily considered, and potentially self-destructive efforts to mandate a heavy reliance upon value-added assessment (known as the growth model in Colorado)."

The first task is to uproot anachronistic policies and structures to create room for smart new solutions to take root. (Think of the first decade of welfare reform in the 1980s). Only after a couple years in which we've given districts a chance to feel their way, and after a handful of alpha locales have crafted some promising approaches, does it make sense for state legislatures to start offering more direction. I blame a lot of this current "one fell swoop" mindset on Race to the Top.

I understand the frustration with the status quo and union resistance that has fueled "fix it now" thinking. I understand fears that nothing much will change if states don't mandate it. But K-12 schooling is a big, complex exercise. Large, hurried solutions have a way of working less well than hoped. Impatience and lashing out in frustration can lead to bad policy--as with NCLB's 100% target for 2014 and its Kafkaesque remedy cascade.

Thoughtful stuff. I only wish the naysayers would be as thoughtful.