Better Than TV: Senate Education Committee Gets Interesting

I had a nice, easy (read: boring) education policy post planned for this fine Friday afternoon. Then I stayed out way past my bedtime to attend a Senate Education Committee hearing that turned out to be so wild and crazy and fantastically entertaining that I feel compelled to share it with you.

Those of you who have been reading my ramblings for a while probably remember how much time we spent talking about the Great Testing Debate of 2015, in which legislators from both sides of the aisle worked to scale back state testing. The debate ultimately culminated in a couple of legislative compromises (see here and here) that significantly scaled back testing, especially in light of further reductions made on the PARCC side of the equation.

But that doesn’t mean everyone was satisfied. A strange (and somewhat disturbing) mashup of hard-right conservatives and union folks want even deeper cuts—especially after ESSA’s passage created some additional state leeway on the testing front. Ninth grade has become the biggest focal point in that conversation, with SB 16-005 aiming to cut that grade’s test entirely.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on the policy ins and outs of SB 005 itself. My Independence Institute friend Ross Izard made clear last year that the Education Policy Center is supportive of a statewide assessment in 9th grade. I believe some statewide assessment at this critically important high school transition is valuable for students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers. I’m siginificantly less excited about that assessment being PARCC.

But who cares what I think? Let’s talk about the fun stuff!

SB 005 was in committee last night, along with an annually run private school enrollment tax credit (though notably not a tax credit scholarship) bill that garnered opposing testimony that made me grind my teeth in intellectual agony. Both were interesting discussions, but SB 005 definitely took the cake. That’s because at the end, after all the testimony and the usual political jousting at the dais, there were some very interesting amendments offered.

In the story I linked in the first paragraph, Chalkbeat describes those amendments:

  • Districts could choose to give the tests if they wanted.

  • Rural districts that chose not to give the ninth grade tests would be allowed to hire non-licensed teachers.

  • Teacher tenure rules would change for any district that chose not to give the tests. In those districts probationary teachers would remain on probation permanently. Non-probationary teachers who lost that status because of evaluations also would remain on probation permanently. Those changes wouldn’t apply to districts that continue to give ninth grade tests.

Whoa! Not too long before these amendments popped up, CEA President Kerrie Dallman offered effusive praise for SB 005 and its conservative sponsors. Then it became the union’s worst nightmare.

The left-leaning members of the Senate Education Committee were obviously taken aback by the amendments. One of them literally turned purple, and this little guy wondered if he should run for medical help. A veteran Capitol education reporter squinted in what appeared to be genuine confusion. Throughout the sparsely populated committee room (remember, this happened fairly late in the evening), mouths hung agape. Even the conservative members of the committee seemed a little surprised.

My reaction was a little different. I laughed.

I laughed even harder when the amendments were adopted, and harder still when the bill proceeded to pass the committee on a party-line Republican vote. Somewhere in these proceedings, CEA’s lobbyists hopped up and hustled out of the room. It’s probably fair to say that the conversation didn’t play out quite the way they had expected.

To put all this in context, there has now been a total reversal of the political situation on SB 005. While it was once the darling of the teachers union, the same union will now have to work to kill it. And short of some procedural or title-related challenge, the union will have to kill it by arguing for teacher tenure and licensure instead of against testing—significantly weaker ground both publicly and politically.

All of that is going to make for a magnificent display of political gamesmanship, and will probably lead to a significant amount of interesting policy discussion. Of all the things Little Eddie is watching this session, SB 005 may well prove to be one of the most interesting. All that’s missing is a bit of popcorn.