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Governor’s Class-Size Initiative in Limbo

Standing before a roomful of Tennessee newspaper publishers and editors Thursday, Gov. Bill Haslam declared he still believes school officials need more legal latitude to adjust student-to-teacher ratios to suit their particular circumstances.

But he acknowledged he’s facing an uphill fight to convince key political constituencies that in some cases a larger classroom size is not necessarily a surefire recipe for lowering student learning potential.

The issue has quickly become the most contentious of the governor’s 2012 legislative agenda. It is panicking teachers, has prompted Democrats to launch a petition drive to fight the plan and is worrying fellow Republicans that public support for the second-year governor’s latest education reform idea may be lacking.

“We want to get this right and our object is not just to have larger class sizes in Tennessee. We know that’s not the right idea,” Haslam told reporters after addressing the Tennessee Press Association’s Winter Convention at the DoubleTree Hotel in Nashville.

But what is the right idea, he said, is creating an environment in which Tennessee’s best teachers can earn higher salaries. That, Haslam maintained, is the ultimate objective behind his legislative initiative.

The governor spent almost the entirety of his speech before the newspaperwomen and men focusing on the subject of education. It is an issue, Haslam pointed out, that many Volunteer State governors before him declared was their number-one priority — and yet often achieved little in the way of demonstrable improvement by the end of their tenures in office.

The state is still awaiting the outcome of a slew of education reforms adopted within the last two years, beginning with changes to teacher evaluations initiated with Gov. Phil Bredesen’s application to the federal First to the Top grant contest. Last year lawmakers added to the list eliminating collective bargaining on teacher labor contracts, expanding access to charter schools and raising the bar needed to earn teacher tenure.

“The object is always to get to the right idea,” Haslam said. As to how Tennessee should ultimately facilitate and usher in a merit-pay system for teachers, Haslam said he welcomes a forthright public discussion “to make sure we get to the right idea.”

Haslam admitted his plan, SB2210, has been met with “mixed reviews,” even joking that his phrasing is “the charitable way” to couch the criticism he’s received.

Even one of the governor’s principle and most powerful political allies acknowledges that any talk of potentially inflating student-to-teacher counts in Tennessee classrooms is going to be met with deep skepticism among professional public educators.

“There is some resistance, there’s no doubt about it,” said Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, who herself spoke to a breakout session of the TPA conference. “Most teachers hold very sacred the ability to have have small classroom sizes. I think what the governor’s intent was was indeed flexibility so that we would allow locals the ability to have a classroom of only five students but have a physics teacher in front of them.”

As written, his plan would allow administrators to add students to a classroom without having to hire extra staff thus freeing up dollars to better pay teachers in hard to teach subjects and challenging schools. For now, he said the bill is on hold in the Legislature while he reviews the possible changes.

“In general, I think he wants to do the right thing,” said Al Mance, Executive Director of the Tennessee Education Association which has met twice with the governor’s administration about the legislation. “I think that when they came up with the proposal, there were questions that they hadn’t considered… I think they really thought that what they were doing would not damage anyone. The fact is that it will.”

The Tennessee Democratic Party launched an online petition Wednesday rallying against the governor’s current proposal.

“Parents and teachers know first hand what difference small class sizes make in improving student learning,” said party Chairman Chip Forrester in a press release. “It’s common sense; the fewer students in a classroom, the more time a teacher can spend with each individual student. If our goal is to improve student learning, Governor Haslam’s plan to increase class sizes is the wrong way to go. It’s a bad idea that shortchanges our kids’ future.”

Haslam’s wouldn’t say what kinds of changes he is willing to make to the legislation, but when asked about handing money to schools to better pay teachers in challenging subjects and schools, he said, “you’re talking a really really large number.”

The governor’s comments came less than an hour before President Barack Obama officially announced that the Volunteer State is one of ten the feds have agreed to exempt from much of the No Child Left Behind law, freeing up schools from what Haslam called “unrealistic” standards which did not recognize school improvements.

The NCLB waiver allows the state to set it’s own rules on judging how schools progress in meeting education standards.

Ramsey Proposes Public Hearings On Teacher Contracts

The latest compromise in the debate over how Tennessee teachers hammer out labor contracts would require that educators be given a chance to offer public input but would no longer enjoy collective bargaining leverage, according to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.

Senate Republican staffers are still working out the details and likely will reveal them next week, but Ramsey said Thursday he expects the fresh language from his chamber will help win over House Republicans who won’t commit to an elimination of teachers’ unions’ collective bargaining power.

“I think that will give the teachers the protection they need and desire, yet don’t have the unions in the middle doing those negotiations,” he said.

The new provisions, which Ramsey said are conceptual right now, would create a “policy manual” for school boards to follow before hashing out teacher labor contracts. It would require public hearings for rank-and-file teachers to air their concerns to the school’s top decision makers.

The school boards would have no obligation to follow the teachers’ recommendations. But Ramsey said the public meetings would keep school board members more accountable to the public.

That sounds like a “glorified faculty meeting,” said Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association.

“I can’t imagine any set of conditions under which this gives teachers a voice. Every school system already has the opportunity, and in fact, the right to have whatever meetings they want to have with their faculties,” he said.

The TEA, which represents some 52,000 teachers, said using the public meetings as the main method to work out teachers’ issues of concern would be “unworkable” and “create chaos” whereas using select union representatives to hash out those issues would be more collaborative.

“I hope the lieutenant governor will go back and think about that again,” Mance said.

The amendment would be the second compromise in an ongoing quest by Tennessee Republicans to curb the authority of the Tennessee Education Association and other teachers’ unions to negotiate contracts.

So far, the GOP caucus is split over two competing proposals. The Senate version of SB113, that Ramsey favors, would ban unions from negotiating on behalf of teachers. The House version maintains collective bargaining but shrinks the list of issues that can be discussed at the negotiation table.

The issue is reminiscent of similar discussions in Wisconsin and Iowa aimed at diminishing union power. Proponents say the changes are necessary to save money and dig the states out of budget holes.

In Tennessee, the argument is a philosophical one over whether unions are good for education.

The issue came to a head Wednesday in the House Education Subcommittee. Republican Chairman Mike Harrison stepped away from his party’s platform on collective bargaining and proposed amendments to give teachers more issues and more negotiators to take with them to the bargaining table.

Both attempts failed, and he abstained from voting the bill out of committee.

“If I had voted against it, the bill would have essentially died, but there’s always other bills that someone could amend and bring the collective bargaining back, and I feel like it would probably be even worse if that had happened,” Harrison said.

The Rogersville Republican is unhappy with both the House and the Senate versions of the bill, but said he could go along with the House’s softer reforms if he can add his amendments.

To Harrison, the issue is less about union power than it is about representing teachers in his district.

“Unions in other states (versus) what we have here are apples and oranges. If you don’t have the ability to go on a strike, and if teachers either have the ability to be a member or not a member, I think it’s probably OK,” he said, referring to Tennessee’s right-to-work framework.

Because he was the tie-breaking vote on the committee, the measure should have died, potentially ending for the year’s discussions about teachers’ collective bargaining privileges. Instead, Speaker Beth Harwell stepped in and cast the deciding vote, passing it out of the committee, 7-6.

Harwell, who took pride earlier this year in dismantling the House Education committee to break up the body’s heavy Memphis majorities, said she was not disappointed her hand-picked subcommittee couldn’t pull the trigger on the bill she helped craft without her direct involvement.

“If I’m needed to be called in to keep a good bill moving forward, I’m honored to do that,” Harwell told reporters Thursday. “I think every day we get closer to garnering the votes we need for passage. Every day we’re making progress.”

Tennessee Tea Party secretary Tami Kilmarx said she’s confused about what exactly is going on among House Republicans, and to what extent the bulk of their 64-member caucus will support the Senate’s more sweeping collective bargaining rollback.

“Senators, like us, feel like we want to cut the head off the snake and do away with collective bargaining across the board,” she said.

Ramsey was scheduled to meet with Kilmarx’s tea party group in Murfreesboro Thursday evening to discuss the latest movement on collective bargaining.

TEA Mulling Haslam’s Tenure Reform Proposal

Tennessee’s largest teachers union is ready to do its homework on Gov. Bill Haslam’s education reform plan.

But regardless of the details of the governor’s legislation, union leadership sees a lot in other bills that it says have nothing to do with teaching children.

Al Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, said Thursday his organization wants to give Haslam’s education proposals a good, close look, then stands ready to talk.

“I think his proposal is going to be complex enough that we’re going to need to get it and analyze it to see exactly what he’s proposing, and then we’d like to talk to them before we take an official organization position on it,” Mance said. “That is particularly true with anything having to do with tenure.”

Haslam delivered his anticipated tenure-adjusting proposal to the legislature Thursday as the highlight of a package that includes lifting current limits on charter schools in the state. Haslam wants to change the probationary time for teacher tenure from three years to five years.

Mance said the TEA will probably have a detailed response by early next week.

Haslam’s tinkering with the tenure system followed the first real shot in Republican lawmakers’ battle with teachers’ union supporters a day earlier, with a Senate committee voting Wednesday to advance a bill wiping away collective bargaining for teachers. The week was a potent one-two punch to the union. The union bargaining issue has stirred the most passion thus far.

“We’ve got 52,000 members across the state who aren’t happy,” Mance said. “This is devastating for some of them. Keep in mind almost 90 percent of all teachers are covered by negotiated contracts. A lot of teachers have lived during the period when we didn’t have them.

“What negotiation does is provide an orderly and structured way for you to sit down with the school system and talk about those problems and issues that may get in the way of actually improving schools.”

Mance has heard some of the information going around that says non-bargaining local educators make an average $130 a year more than teachers who work under collectively bargained contracts. But, he said, that is taking into account only salary, not both salary and benefits.

He said bargaining groups of teachers almost always exceed what nonbargaining local organizations receive in health insurance.

“If they repeal the bargaining law, they have no opportunity to sit down in an orderly way and have input into the education and school system,” Mance said. “They will be back to a time when teachers were expected to be seen and not heard, and I don’t think that’s something teachers are going to be able to tolerate ever again.

“I don’t think most school boards want that.”

The Tennessee School Boards Association says indeed it does not. But that organization rejects the notion that such an outcome is likely or would, for that matter, be tolerated by the voters who elect local citizens to the boards.

“It serves the best interest of everyone in the system, especially the school board and the teachers, to have a collaborative relationship,” said Lee Harrell, a lobbyist for the TSBA, which is pushing the anti-collective bargaining bill. “School board members are elected, and they have to meet certain standards, and they have to have highly qualified teachers — and they have to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers. It serves them absolutely no good and no interest to shut the teachers out.”

Harrell, who made his remarks before the Senate Education Committee this week, said the 45 school districts in Tennessee that aren’t mandated to collectively bargain with unions — 91 districts are — have an “open relationship” that results in constructive discussions with teachers on the full range of education-related issues.

“They want to hear directly from teachers in the classrooms,” Harrell said of school board members.

Mance said the existence of mandatory collective bargaining in one system can have an effect on a neighboring system, like the Memphis city schools compared to Shelby County schools.

“Some of the benefits in Shelby County are what they are because Memphis is right next door, and Memphis negotiates,” Mance said. “In order to establish and maintain some kind of parity it means that Shelby County has to improve its benefits but also improve teacher involvement in decision-making.

“That is as important to most teachers as the salaries and benefits.”

Mance expressed concern about a flurry of bills in the Legislature he says don’t directly affect education. They include the mandatory collectively bargaining issue, a bill doing away with TEA’s members selecting people for the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System board of trustees and a bill to remove a payroll dues deduction for any employee organization that participates in politics.

“There are a number of bills around, and none of them have anything to do with support of teaching in the classroom or support for education reform that have any possibility of improving the education of Tennessee boys and girls,” he said.