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Alan Gottlieb Headshot

The Lines Harden

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I don't think it's just my imagination. In many matters related to public education, in Colorado and across the nation, positions are hardening, rhetoric is ramping up and the potential for compromise and reconciliation seems more remote by the day.

I feel sorry for our children.

Locally and nationally, positioning and posturing for round two Race to the Top dollars is creating much of the acrimony.

In Denver, disintegrating relationships on the school board caused by the pension refinance/interest rate swap controversy is adding an additional layer of discord.

The Colorado Education Association used an op-ed column in The Denver Post by Education Commissioner Dwight Jones as a pretext for opposing the second-round Race to the Top application it seemed likely to fight in any case. In that column, Jones endorsed the tenure and evaluation overhaul bill introduced earlier this month by state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.

That bill is the union's bête noire, because it ties at least half of a teacher's evaluation to student growth on standardized test scores and makes teacher tenure a bit less of a lifetime lock on a job. It also give more power in setting regulations around evaluation to the State Board of Education, and less to the legislature, where the CEA's lobbyists wield a lot of clout.

Meanwhile, in Florida, a similar but more draconian bill passed through the state legislature but was vetoed by GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, eliciting howls of outrage from reformers and other Republicans. Crist is being outflanked on the right in the Senate race by a charismatic Tea Party darling of a fellow Republican, Marco Rubio, and so decided to tack left. Or something. Florida politics are as Byzantine as it gets. So who really knows?

Crists's veto energized unions across the country, and built momentum for concerted opposition to similar bills in other states, including Colorado. In fact, a Floridian commented on the Education News Colorado website last week: "Colorado teachers, be sure you know exactly what is in the bill, and stand up for what is right, not just what is politically popular!" And another urged a major Facebook-based grassroots campaign like the one that allegedly prompted Crist's veto.

So the fate of Johnston's bill is very much up in the air as debate on it begins later this week. Tensions are high and in some quarters at least, tempers seem frayed. Race to the Top provides reformers of the Obama-Duncan stripe with momentum. Crist's veto provides some counter-momentum.

And what to make of the Denver school board? I'll let this little e-mail exchange yesterday among three board members speak for itself.

Angered by fellow board member Jeanne Kaplan's insistence on continuing to belabor the pension refinance issue, Theresa Peña wrote her - and copied other board members and senior district staff:

Tonight we have very important presentations on math and ELA and both will be shorter because you have insisted on another public opportunity to play gotcha with our superintendent and his team. I'm extremely disappointed that our Board has not been discussing relevant issues that we are elected and entrusted to discuss: the Denver Plan, curriculum, ELA are three important ones. I will become much more public with my displeasure if you keep this up.

Andrea Merida jumped to Kaplan's defense:

The insider meetings conducted outside of public scrutiny are coming to a screeching halt right now. Transparency is what the public wants, and if it's the last thing I do, they will get it. You can spin all you want about agendas, and even continue with your personal attacks in the media, but the real agenda here is the public's right to know how their tax dollars are being spent... As the former Board president, and as the de facto current president, I suppose there is much for you to hide, so I suppose this explains your posturing.

And things only got worse at last night's board work session. Little wonder that public education remains stuck in the muck and mire.