05/11/2010 04:43 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gut-Check Time

By the time tomorrow draws to a close, we will know whether Colorado lawmakers, particularly Democrats, mustered the will and courage to pass one of the most significant pieces of education legislation in recent years.

I single out Democrats for an obvious reason; to vote for Senate Bill 10-191 - aka the teacher evaluation and tenure bill - means bucking the Colorado Education Association, the most powerful education interest group in the state. The CEA is pulling out all the stops - including fear-mongering, arm-twisting and fact-twisting - to defeat this bill.

The organization obviously views SB 10-191 as an existential threat; not to teachers but to itself. Why? Because if SB 10-191 becomes law, it means the CEA failed to muster the political force to stop it, despite having both houses of the legislature and the governorship in the hands of the Democratic Party, CEA's longtime soulmate.

If that happens, it will be a lot easier in the future for more Dems to discount the CEA's influence. This would be good for education in Colorado - even good for teachers - but bad for the CEA, and its mothership, the National Education Association.

Legislators and others who differ with unions on this bill are being labeled "anti-teacher." This wearisome tactic gets trotted out often. So let's be clear: Disagreeing with a professional association struggling to maintain its influence is in no way an assault on teachers and their tireless dedication to improving the lives of children.

The NEA has been on a high since last month, when more draconian legislation of a similar nature passed through the Republican-controlled Florida legislature, only to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist - now an independent. It will be a bummer of a come-down for the NEA if Colorado bucks the trend Florida started.

Teachers by the dozen have commented on this website in recent weeks about SB 10-191. Many of the comments on both sides have been thoughtful and provocative. Teachers who oppose the bill make some valid points against it.

And yes, the CEA as well has raised some valid concerns about the bill. Most compelling is the fact that the assessments needed to drive the new system are so far untested and of questionable reliability. Those real weaknesses can be addressed as we move forward.

But underlying much of the opposition is a fear of change. Change, however, is coming, like it or not. Whether the change is relatively benign, as Sen. Mike Johnston's bill would be (despite the CEA's Armageddon scenarios) or something much more severe (just see what happens if the GOP seizes control of the state policy apparatus in November) remains to be seen.

What happens in the short term if Johnston's bill fails? The CEA will have won a big victory and the status quo will remain intact. The governor's Effectiveness Council presumably will keep working, but to what effect is unclear.

If you believe anyone in the CEA will put forward a serious plan that would meaningfully revamp the teacher evaluation and tenure systems, then I have a bundle of subprime mortgages that would make a great investment.

I've said this before, but it's striking how closely this resembles the recently concluded national debate on health care reform, with roles reversed. No one here has mentioned death panels - yet. But we still have another day left in the session.

As someone who has always fallen on the liberal/progressive side of the political spectrum on most issues, I find it disheartening, though not surprising, to see self-identified progressives playing this at times cynical, mean-spirited game.

Equally discouraging are the knee-jerk reactions and over-heated rhetoric of hyper-partisans on the House Education Committee.

Take these two quotes from last Friday's Education News Colorado:

"I can't support a bill that I think is an insult to my profession," said (Rep. Mike) Merrifield, a retired music teacher serving his last session in the legislature.

"This bill has nothing to do with improving the effectiveness of teachers," said (Rep. Judy) Solano. "This bill scapegoats teachers for all the inadequacies of public education."

The underlying messages from people like Merrifield, Solano, and their new champion, Diane Ravitch is this: Blame the students. They deliberately sabotage test results to hurt teachers. Blame the parents. They fail to prepare their kids to learn. But for heaven's sake, keep your paws and your blame off our teachers.

Come on, folks. Blaming anyone is counterproductive, but there certainly is responsibility enough for our failures to go around.

Plenty of thoughtful people oppose this bill and also want change to teacher tenure and evaluation. But their voices are being drowned out by the shrill battle cries of the CEA and its allies.

Here's a prediction: The bill will squeak through. The sky will not fall. Teachers will not be fired en masse by capricious principals. It will take years for any of this to have a noticeable effect. Eventually, things might get marginally better.

But don't bet on it.