Teacher tenure bill: Controversial lineup takes on law that didn't help state Race to the Top

Reeves Whalen didn't mean to touch a nerve when he organized tonight's panel discussion on Senate Bill 191, the controversial "teacher tenure bill" drafted by Senator Michael Johnston and approved by lawmakers earlier this year.

But the lineup of speakers the personal injury attorney and active House District 5 Democrat put together did just that.

The list included Johnston, a former school principal and Obama education advisor; Denver Public Schools boardmember Mary Seawell; state boardmember Elaine Gantz Berman; Education News Colorado publisher Alan Gottlieb; associate state education commissioner Rich Wenning; and DPS director of educator effectiveness Tracy Dorland.

Almost immediately, Whalen says he got phone calls from people upset with the lineup.

"I was criticized by some people who said, 'Your panel doesn't represent a balanced approach. It doesn't represent people adamantly against this bill,'" Whalen says. So he added a few more panel members -- most notably Henry Roman, the president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

"I don't want this to be a shouting match," he says. "I think by expanding it, it does allow for us to establish some unity with the people actively involved in moving forward with it."

The focus of Whalen's debate also drew heat. He wanted to discuss the implementation of SB 191, which changes the way teachers receive tenure by basing half of the determination on their students' academic growth and makes it easier for teachers to lose that status if they're deemed "ineffective" for two years in a row. But he found people were still itching to debate the basic merits of the bill, which has now been signed into law.

Whalen says he understands that urge. "It's difficult to focus on implementation without revisiting some of the history of the bill and the chronology of stuff leading up to it," he says. But, he adds, "I hope at this point, we're past the issue of whether or not we favor this, and we're more on board with now that it's the law, how do we move forward?"

One question he'd like for panel members to debate is whether SB 191 is "just the initial stage of a sequence of educational reforms that will put us in a better position to get federal funding." Judging by the fact that Coloradolost its bid for $175 million in federal Race to the Top grant money yesterday, the answer may be no.

But Whalen wants to hear what others have to say about it. Although he has no children, he says he mentors kids through the Denver Rescue Mission's Save Our Youth program, which gives him a good insight into the city's public schools.

"You don't have to be a parent to be concerned with the education of our children," he says. "In the end, it impacts all of us."

The panel discussion will be held tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. in room 640 on the sixth floor of the Tivoli Student Union on the Auraria campus. Attendees are encouraged to give a $10 donation. The proceeds will benefit the House District 5 Democrats.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar