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Haslam’s Tenure Bill on Track for Passage

Even though it has been painted as one of the least objectionable proposals in a raft of education overhaul bills in the Tennessee Legislature his year, Gov. Bill Haslam’s tenure reform initiative has yet to win actual support from Democrats or the teachers’ union.

House Republicans advanced the governor’s tenure reform proposal out of a key committee this week after ignoring leading Democrats’ attempts to slow down discussion and implementation of the bill that would make it more difficult for teachers to earn and keep tenure.

“I think most of my caucus is supportive of the concept of changing tenure around,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic caucus leader in the House of Representatives.

“My only concern, and our only concern, is that (teacher) evaluation system hasn’t been approved yet,” said Fitzhugh.

Without any provisions to slow down implementation of Haslam’s new tenure rules, he said most of the caucus will probably vote against the measure on the House floor next week. The same measure passed in the Senate 21-12, with Nashville Sen. Douglas Henry casting the lone Democratic vote with Republicans.

Democrats this session have mostly voted in lockstep with the Tennessee Education Association on bills the union opposes. Both Democrats and Republicans allege that TEA’s obvious preference for Democrats when dispensing union campaign contributions is playing a significant role in the battles over GOP-driven education reform.

Democrats say Republican-backed bills targeting teachers’ unions are “political payback.” Republicans say Democrats are “bought and paid for” by union money.

But on tenure at least, TEA has all but surrendered the fight. “I’m not under any illusion that this is going to be stopped. I mean, the votes are there to pass it and I understand that,” said TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters.

The backdrop to the tenure debate involves the Legislature’s decision last year to change a laundry list of laws overhauling education and creating more accountability for teachers as part of a contest for what turned out to be $500 million in federal Race to the Top grant money for Tennessee.

One of the measures called for rewriting the state’s teacher evaluation criteria and mandating that half of every teachers’ evaluation be directly related to student test scores — an issue on which the Tennessee Education Association required a bit of convincing from Gov. Phil Bredesen before they signed off on it.

The TEA ultimately did agree to the reforms, although union officials worried about creating fair evaluation systems for teachers who instruct in subjects like special education, music and history that they say are difficult to test.

Select schools are still testing out the new teacher evaluations, and the state Board of Education has yet to OK details of the new system, which are supposed to be implemented by July 1 — the same time Haslam’s new tenure rules would kick in.

“This is so important that we need to go ahead and scrap the old system and start with the new, and so if nothing else, this bill needs to go through now in order to scrap the system that has not worked and has failed our children,” said Rep. Bill Dunn, the Knoxville Republican carrying the bill.

The rub, according to Winters, is teachers and officials haven’t vetted the new process or worked out the kinks.

“I think we’d want to see what that evaluation system would look like in place. It’s got to have credibility,” he said.

But the TEA can see the writing on the wall, Winters said.

“No, I do not think this is an attack on teachers. I think the details are something that need to be talked about. I do think some of the other bills, such as the repeal of collective bargaining, are an overt attack on the teachers of this state.”

PET: ‘Collective Bargaining is Monopoly Bargaining’

Press Release from J. C. Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, March 16, 2011:

As a professional association, Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) believes it takes everyone working together to improve Tennessee public schools. But the teachers’ union only wants their voice heard and is only interested in an agenda that only benefits them. One of PET’s guiding tenets is that educators have the right to work in public schools without being forced to join any particular organization. They can join our organization, they can join the union, they can join one of the other organizations in the state or they can join nothing at all. Tennessee is a “right to work” state. This means by law, employees cannot be forced to join a professional organization as a term of employment.

A key difference between our organization and the teachers union is that PET is a democratically run association, relying on input from our members here in Tennessee. We are not reliant upon a Washington DC teacher union with an out of touch political and social agenda to determine our goals or objectives. That is another key reason that the exclusivity of teachers unions is intrinsically unfair, not only to our members—but to other teachers, taxpayers, parents and policymakers at every level.

Unions make collective bargaining look like a great service they perform for seemingly nothing. Teachers, however, must pay for these services with dues. Dues can total almost $600 per school year. Why do union leaders want exclusive representation in school districts? Because exclusive representation can lead to total control over all teachers in a district, even to determine who will teach and who will be fired. That is too much power to vest in any ONE organization that does not have to be accountable to taxpayers in this state. The better term for collective bargaining is monopoly bargaining.

Collective Bargaining is not going to work if it continues as a monopoly in education, and most people across the state realize this fact. We need to work together in a more collaborative fashion. We understand clearly that public education is dealing with more rapid change than ever before:

  • We are preparing students for jobs that have not yet been created…
  • We are preparing students to use technologies that have not yet been invented…
  • We are preparing students to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise.

One organization cannot have all the answers. And the teachers’ union is proving that by clinging to an outdated and adversarial system they are failing to help teachers recapture our position as respected professionals on the issue of public education. They are making it clear that they do not understand the financial crisis in many local and state governments and confirming they cannot act for the common good.

Teachers who believe in freedom of association and freedom of choice say they are captive passengers because they are forced to accept representation they do not want. They believe if union officials consider it a burden to represent them, then they should only be allowed to represent their members, and nonmembers should be allowed to speak for themselves. We agree.

Let’s be clear- our organization is not anti-union, and politically we are non-partisan. However, we believe that new realities require new thinking, pragmatic solutions, and fresh ideas. Otherwise, we fear that the voices of teachers will not be heard, and the experiences of teachers not considered.

We also agree, with our union friends, that it is important that the legislature provide a basis for policy dialogue and opportunities for greater collaboration in defining and implementing educational goals, policies and practices. We argue it is time to incorporate trust, problem-solving, and cooperation into the bargaining procedures if it is to continue in the state. The difficult job of the legislature is to provide an effective and professional framework for teachers and school districts to collaborate more efficiently.

We suggest these key principles for collaboration:

  • Framework built on well-structured conceptual understanding of actual teacher needs, student needs, and societal expectations.
  • Coordination across different stakeholder perspectives
    • Systematic integration of insights from students, parents, teachers,principals, system-leaders and other key stakeholders.
  • Productive data-driven feedback, at appropriate levels to drive improvement at multiple levels including the state and local.

Collaboration Not Confrontation

Since teachers are highly educated, well-credentialed professionals with substantial independent, but critical responsibilities, the traditional union monopoly collective bargaining model may or may not work for all teachers across the state going forward. Teachers should debate and consider this model’s benefits and drawbacks as it applies to them today. That is another reason to be more inclusive in the future. It is projected by research that a true estimate of teacher union representation of classroom teachers is much closer to 55% to 60% of teachers statewide.

No matter the actual numbers, we believe that most educators agree that trust and respect for colleagues and stakeholders are the cornerstones in building a cooperative environment. Establishing trust may be difficult. As personal relationships develop and the adversarial aspect is eliminated, a sound foundation for mutual respect and trust can gradually take shape. Then the basis of a cooperative bargaining approach can be built.

Monopoly collective bargaining, on the other hand, is a process by which management and labor (school boards and educators) negotiate to reach an agreement on working conditions such as salaries, hours and benefits. We think some of these issues may actually need to be addressed at the state legislature. And we are willing to work with anyone here in the General Assembly to help teachers and school personnel achieve greater salaries and benefits. We believe that greater collaboration only benefits Tennessee teachers, and surely that should be our goal.

PET also believes that teachers and school boards should not be adversarial to the other, but to the extent possible, work together for the benefit of students, improve performance, attract future teachers, and retain and obtain benefits necessary to keep quality teachers in the classroom. The damage done in many communities by collective bargaining means that teachers must strive to enhance their image in the public’s mind, and be viewed by the public and policy makers as advocates for students. Teachers are the greatest advocates for children, but sadly that image has been lost.

We have known from the onset of this legislation that the teachers’ union would fight for monopoly collective bargaining. The reason the fight has been so bitter is because collective bargaining is where the Tennessee Education Association or their affiliate is granted exclusivity over teachers. By exclusivity it is generally described this way: 1) The Association shall have the exclusive right to post notices of Association activities and matters of Association concern on employee bulletin boards, in an area used exclusively by employees. No other organization seeking to represent employees or soliciting memberships shall be allowed the rights of access described in this article. 2) No other organization claiming to represent educators shall be granted the rights as described in any portion of Article IV. (i.e. use of facilities, faculty meetings, access to members, communications, and board meetings). We have worked hard to get this part of the collective bargaining provision stricken. It is inherently un-American that one organization be given exclusivity over all teachers in a school district to the point that other organizations are discriminated against.

We believe that teachers have a unique voice and should be heard on all matters relating to education, that teachers need to be aware of new political realities in the state, that a teachers’ association should strive to avoid being identified exclusively with any political party, that local classroom teachers need to be the driving force in defining a teacher’s role and responsibilities, that teachers should define a teacher’s association’s goals and objectives.

PET supports inclusive policies in which all employee organizations are allowed to consult with school boards on issues important to the organization’s members. As an educator organization, even if PET was the group designated to represent employees in districts, we believe it takes an entire community to educate Tennessee’s children. This includes parents, faculty, and even employee organizations that have different beliefs than our own. A policy built around inclusion would protect educators against being coerced to join an organization that might not represent their beliefs and being forced to pay exorbitant union dues.

In any negotiating process, lines of communication must be kept open between both parties and within each party. Negotiation, after all, is a process of interacting for the sake of reaching a satisfactory agreement. Members of each side must be informed of developments (or lack of them) at the bargaining table. Keeping such information flowing reduces the possibility of misunderstandings and can help speed up negotiations. When those negotiations are adversarial lines of communication are shut down. Being willing to alter demands, writing trust agreements and memoranda of understanding, and selecting respected, credible members on negotiating teams all contribute to the cooperative spirit that is at the root of collaborative bargaining.

Professional Educators of Tennessee believes that schools are not factories, classrooms are not assembly lines and children are not widgets. We have in the past spoken out against the negative baggage that goes with traditional, industrial-style monopoly collective bargaining. We oppose teacher strikes and work stoppages because they impact the children we teach. We oppose forced unionism and agency shop. Tennessee has more than one teacher group because PET has always defended the right of Tennessee teachers to join the organization that best meets their needs — or to join nothing at all. Your freedom to choose is an essential right.

There is great confidence by many teachers across the state that Tennessee lawmakers will ultimately study the issue and reach a fair and appropriate conclusion. Hopefully all legislators can reach universal agreement that whatever legislation ultimately comes out of Nashville on this matter. The principles we espouse will establish a peaceful, stable employer-employee relationship. We advocate the protection of the rights of ALL teachers to be members of the organization of their choice with equal access; protection of the right of the taxpayer through their elected representatives to control government policy and the cost of government; and, governmental services will be provided in the most efficient and orderly manner possible.

J. C. Bowman is the executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Governor’s Budget Initially Well Received; State of the State Address Applauded

Gov. Bill Haslam extended a hand to the state’s teachers and called for a new way of governing in his first State of the State address Monday night, the same day he presented a $30.2 billion budget proposal to the Tennessee Legislature.

“Our current financial constraints are not a temporary condition,” Haslam said. “I think that what we are seeing in government today really is the new normal. Every government, ours included, will be forced to transform how it sets priorities and makes choices.”

Haslam said Tennesseans have told legislators to roll up their sleeves, find consensus on spending, educate children, encourage teachers and stimulate job creation. And they want their elected leaders to “do it now,” said the governor.

Haslam is in the first few weeks of an administration where the greatest amount of attention has been on education. His first legislative package since taking office includes reform in the teacher tenure process — as well as an embrace of charter schools.

With regard to public school teaching specifically, the governor wants to extend the probationary period for teacher tenure from three years to five. As a backdrop to that initiative, the Legislature is engaged in debate over proposals to do away with teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

Haslam stood at the podium in the House chamber on Monday as a Republican governor with historic Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. “We will no longer have more of the same kind of government in good times and less of it in hard times,” said the former Knoxville mayor. “We really do have to transform our government.”

He did not dwell on jobs in his speech — one of the main issues on which he campaigned. Although Haslam did reiterate his intention to ask the question “Is it good for jobs?” whenever any new regulation on business is proposed.

The governor is also proposing a $7 million appropriation for the Northwest Tennessee Regional Port Authority in Lake County that would provide a port accessible to major markets. He noted the site may receive a $13 million federal grant.

“At a time that the citizens in Lake and other surrounding counties in upper West Tennessee are dealing with the closure of the Goodyear tire plant, I am pleased to embrace this project as a stimulus for new jobs and new business investment,” Haslam said.

Haslam also announced a “new era of partnership,” proposing a $10 million grant for the Memphis Research Consortium, seeking collaboration in research from the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, St. Jude and other health care operations.

“The state’s great research institutions and universities such as Oak Ridge National Laboratories, Vanderbilt and our public universities should work together with the private sector to find ways to effectively translate the investments in ongoing research into businesses that create high-quality jobs,” he said.

But Haslam clearly had teachers on his mind. The treatment of teachers, particularly the threat to teachers’ union collective bargaining leverage, has been the source of some of the hottest rhetoric in the current legislative session. Haslam has tried to stay above the fray and has called on lawmakers to tone down some of the discussion.

“I want to be very clear. My goal is to treat teaching like the important and honorable profession that it is,” Haslam said. “My goal is to make Tennessee a place where great educators want to teach and feel rewarded and appreciated for their efforts.

“Because, at the end of the day, there is nothing that makes as much difference in a child’s academic progress as the teacher standing in front of the classroom.”

Democrats in the Legislature who spoke to TNReport following Haslam’s speech responded favorably to his remarks — some saying they’d like to see Republicans in the General Assembly act more like Haslam.

“I was really pleased to hear what he said about teachers,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, the Senate Democratic leader. “I hope some of the legislators that have been bringing these bills attacking teachers heard the governor and will start focusing on education and quit focusing on labor relations.

“It does show that the good work we’ve done the last four years with the Bredesen administration has paid off because we have revenue to work with and we have our house in order. So I was pleased.”

Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, a vocal opponent of GOP-led education reform and an early skeptic of Gov. Haslam’s expressions of bipartisan goodwill, offered generally favorable reviews of the governor’s speech Monday night.

“I appreciate the governor being logical in his presentation and not on the extreme that some of the folks in his party have been,” Towns said. “He’s obviously a very logical, very sensible man. But what we’re getting from the (Republican) party sounds extreme.

“My concern is to protect public education. Overall it gave me an insight into what kind of governor he possibly will be. I wish he could take his party and transfuse how he thinks to the folks who are leading his party, because they are way off on the wrong track.”

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, the Democratic Caucus chairman who elicited contempt from Republicans recently for publicly calling the GOP’s legislative agenda “terrorism against our teachers,” said he liked much of what he heard from Haslam.

“Overall, I was surprised and pleased with the governor’s budget,” Turner said. “The devil is in the details. How you get to some of the places he got to is what we’ll be analyzing.

“I disagree on the tenure, but he’s trying hard to reach out to the Democrats and include us in what he’s trying to do.”

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the state teachers union, the Tennessee Education Association, gave Haslam good marks. “Generally, I was very pleased,” Winters said. “I think the governor set a very positive tone. He very clearly pointed out that the future of this state was tied to the quality of education in Tennessee.

“He also made very clear the role of teachers, and I think he showed some respect for teachers that’s not being shown by some individual legislators up here with very divisive bills,” added Winters. “We are willing to work with him on any of his education plans and look forward to continuing that discussion.”

GOP lawmakers offered little in the way of criticism.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville, said the speech was “refreshing.”

“Realistic but refreshing,” Norris said. “I was very pleased with the responsible approach, across the board — forward thinking, upbeat. I think he appealed to everybody’s better nature in there, and I like it.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, said he’s hoping Haslam’s budget passes with bipartisan support.

TNGOP Chairman Chris Devaney issued a statement Monday night calling the governor’s budget “sensible.”

“Governor Haslam laid out a bold and responsible plan about how to reform the way our state government does business,” said Devaney. “This plan includes setting clear priorities in our state budget, encouraging entrepreneurship to create an environment for more good-paying jobs, and elevating student achievement in our public schools.”

Senate, House Taking Up Haslam’s Teacher Tenure Initiative

In debates over education reform this year, Gov. Bill Haslam’s push to make it harder for teachers to earn and keep tenure hasn’t been as starkly polarizing as other Republican-backed legislation.

But it is nonetheless provoking resistance from the Tennessee Education Association, the union that represents more than 50,000 of the state’s public school employees.

Eight Republicans and one Democrat in the House Education Subcommittee voted Wednesday to approve Haslam’s tenure reforms. Four Democrats voted against the bill. The full Senate is expected to vote on its version of the legislation Thursday morning. (UPDATE: the Senate bill passed 21-12)

The tenure measure would require new teachers to spend five instead of three years in the classroom before earning tenure, which generally offers job protection. A series of evaluations would determine whether an educator could be put on probation or have her tenure revoked.

The legislation would not affect teachers who currently have tenure. If passed into law, teachers who have tenure as of the next school year would continue to use the current system while those who have yet to receive tenure will be subject to the new rules.

The proposal is a centerpiece to Haslam’s education-reform agenda, which also calls for lifting restrictions on charter schools and allowing students to use lottery scholarships for summer courses.

The governor says it is currently difficult to get rid of public school teachers who aren’t performing at a level of proficiency deemed adequate by their superiors.

According to a 2008 Legislative Brief from the Tennessee Comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability (pdf):

The number of annual teacher dismissals and cost per dismissal hearing cannot be calculated with any precision. The Tennessee Department of Education retains no records of the number of dismissals. Despite a lack of concrete data, the estimated number of dismissal cases is fewer than 50 per year – less than one-tenth of a percent of Tennessee’s total teaching force – according to the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) and the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA), with the majority of hearings occurring in the state’s largest school systems. Although only an estimate, this number suggests a very small percentage of Tennessee’s teachers are ultimately dismissed from their teaching duties.

Haslam said Wednesday that OREA’s report — issued when John G. Morgan, now chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, was the state’s comptroller — reveals why tenure reform is necessary.

“I think that does show that maybe the way it’s set up now, it’s too hard to replace teachers who aren’t effective,” said the governor. “I think way more of our teachers in Tennessee are good than are bad. I want to be really clear about that. But we need to have the mechanism to replace teachers who aren’t working well.”

Given the bundle of bills that more directly aim to pare the influence of the TEA — banning collective bargaining, eliminating payroll deductions of union dues, doing away with TEA’s ability to select members of the state retirement board — the prospect of curbed tenure protection has provoked relatively little controversy. When about 3,000 union demonstrators marched on Capitol Hill Saturday to protest the mainly Republican-driven education reforms, tenure was hardly mentioned.

But the TEA is by no means unconcerned with Haslam’s plan — as evidenced by a strong showing of union members sitting in on Wednesday’s hearing and the fact that most of the House subcommittee’s Democrats opposed the bill.

Union leaders worry that the plan will base teachers’ probationary period on a set of largely untested measures. The system will leave holes for teachers who can’t be measured by standardized test scores, known as Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System or TVASS, and may leave other teachers continually in a “probationary” status, TEA President Gera Summerford said.

“Not every student can be an ‘A’ student. And not every teacher can be a top-level teacher,” Summerford said. “It depends on so many conditions, the students that you teach, the environment in which you teach, the community in which you teach.”

She said the TEA is willing to look at some aspects of the tenure law, but wants to make sure teachers still have rights to challenge potential dismissals.

Democrats are too, said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley. But they’d like to put off some of the bill’s changes until the state can thoroughly vet the new teacher evaluation system.

Studies in other states show it’s both difficult and expensive to give failing teachers the boot. In Illinois, which is home to some 95,000 tenured teachers, only one or two are fired each year for poor performance, according to one analysis.

Memphis Rep. John DeBerry, the lone Democrat who joined with House Education Committee Republicans in voting for the tenure bill Wednesday, said TEA needs to accept that when they signed on to reforms as part of the state’s desire to win $500 million in Race to the Top education funds last year, they were agreeing to an all-out education overhaul.

“Part of Race to the Top was changing tenure and changing education as we know it,” said DeBerry.

Dems in TN Senate Condemn Pension Board Shifts as ‘First Strike Against Teachers’

Press Release from the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, March 9, 2011:

Republicans vote to give themselves power to appoint teachers to state pension board

NASHVILLE – Senate Democrats voiced their concern Wednesday over a Republican bill to ban teachers from voting members onto the state pension board, in the first of many efforts to target Tennessee educators for political payback.

“Bills like these don’t help a single child, they don’t raise a single test score and they don’t help move education forward in Tennessee,” said State Senator Eric Stewart (D-Belvidere). “When it comes to education reform, we should be inviting teachers to the table. These bills push teachers away.”

Senate Bill 102 would take away the ability of teachers’ and retired teachers’ organizations to select their representatives on the state pension board. Under the bill, the Republican speakers of the Senate and House would receive expanded authority, despite their commitments to smaller government.

The bill passed 20-13 along party lines in the Senate during Wednesday’s session.

Monday’s floor vote is likely to be the first of many to ban teachers from basic rights such as organizing, making political donations and collectively negotiating classroom sizes, school schedules and pay rates. Many have questioned why Republicans would go after the same teachers who are currently implementing major education reforms under Tennessee’s First to the Top Act.

“Teachers should be our greatest allies, and I don’t understand why the majority party is choosing to make them into enemies,” said Sen. Tim Barnes (D-Adams). “We hope they will join us in working with teachers to ensure our children receive the best education possible.”

The House version of the bill is in a subcommittee.

House GOP Support Weak for Outright Ban on Collective Bargaining: Fmr. Speaker Williams

A recognizable spokesman may have emerged at the Capitol on Wednesday for moderate Republicans — RINOs, if you prefer — who support Tennessee teachers’ unions.

And he says the push to eliminate teachers’ collective bargaining leverage in local school districts may not be a done deal in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

“I don’t think the legislation will pass in the House,” Elizabethton Rep. Kent Williams said. He added that he believes there are “enough commonsense Republicans in the House, as myself, to kill this piece of legislation.”

Of course, Williams isn’t actually a Republican anymore — although he considers himself one. He was officially ousted from the party and became an independent after cutting a deal with House Democrats in January 2009 to assume the role of speaker.

But the ranking Republican on the House floor, Gerald McCormick, said Wednesday evening that Williams’ instincts on the collective bargaining issue probably aren’t far from the truth.

“He may be close to right on that,” the House majority leader told TNReport. Some members of the House GOP caucus may not want to do away with collective bargaining, the Chattanooga Republican said.

Williams has signaled in the past few months that he’s interested in trying to win his way back into the good graces of his former party — though now he seems to be taking an unorthodox approach to doing that.

“We’re infringing on people’s rights, on our citizens’ rights. And it’s just not right,” Williams said of bills in the House and Senate that seek to prohibit local school boards from negotiating “with a professional employees’ organization or teachers’ union concerning the terms or conditions of professional service.”

The House version of the bill is sponsored by GOP Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart. The Senate version, spearheaded by Sen. Jack Johnson, is expected to be put to a floor vote after Gov. Bill Haslam’s Mar. 14 budget address. Jackson said Thursday he doesn’t want to weaken the bill with compromises, but said he might be willing to write some limited changes in.

With regards to some GOP lawmakers’ focus on collective bargaining, Williams said he just doesn’t get it. “I’m trying to comprehend why we even have this legislation, with the important issues that we are facing today,” he said.

“I’d like to ask the sponsors — and I will when it comes to committee — I will ask them if they would have gotten the political contributions that they demanded from the TEA, would we have this legislation today? I doubt it.”

The former House speaker was responding to questions as he watched a Democratic lawmakers’ press conference called Wednesday to accused Republicans of “continuous attacks on teachers, students and working families.”

“Everybody here knows this is a slap in the face to the teachers in the state of Tennessee,” Williams said to cheers from the Tennessee Education Association supporters on hand.

Williams sounded just as passionate in his defense of unionized teachers as Democratic Rep. Mike McDonald of Portland and Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere, who led the midday press conference at Legislative Plaza. Together they demanded Republicans call off their education reform bills.

College Grove Republican Rep. Glen Casada, a sponsor of a bill the TEA dislikes, said Williams and Democrats are wrong when they say the GOP is motivated to confront the teachers’ union merely over money.

Frustration with the TEA has been brewing in GOP circles for a long time, and more than anything it is rooted in the TEA’s penchant for stopping or watering down Republican-favored education reform legislation, said Casada, the former House Republican Caucus chairman.

Casada, who is pushing a bill to end automatic payroll deduction of government employees’ union dues, is the GOP lawmaker at the center of the TEA’s allegation that Republicans are out for union blood primarily because the TEA refused to fork over more campaign funding for GOP candidates.

In an interview with TNReport, Casada acknowledged that last year he did indeed attempt to secure a more “equitable” share of the TEA’s political spending, which the union rebuffed.

But Casada said such fundraising activities are a common aspect of the caucus chairman’s job description, and that Democrats and Republicans alike often call on groups and individuals and suggest they give more money to the party. It is also standard, he said, to point out when a group seems to be “favoring the other side” — at which point the next question that usually gets asked is, “Can you balance it out?”

“When I first called (TEA), the reports showed that they had given $180,000 to Democrats and $6,000 to Republicans,” said Casada. “I called the TEA and said, ‘Fellas, is this equitable, is this fair?’ That was pretty much the word I used. And then I said it is not fair.”

Casada said the TEA then upped their giving to Republicans a tad, but “it wasn’t that much.” He said contribution reports indicated later that TEA had given $194,000 to Democrats and somewhere between $10,000 and $14,000 to Republicans.

“That’s when I called the second time and said, ‘Here’s what the numbers show. Can you not be equitable in your giving?’ And they said ‘no,’ and that’s the way it is,” said Casada.

He maintains, though, that whatever annoyance Republicans felt over the contribution issue had nothing to do with the raft of GOP-sponsored legislation targeting the union. Many Republicans simply regard “collective bargaining (as) a harmful process,” he said.

“It creates a level of bureaucracy between the employee and the school board, in this case,” Casada said.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the leading Republican in the Senate, said the outrage expressed by Democratic lawmakers and TEA leadership over the political contribution issue rings a little hollow, given that the minority party appears “bought and paid for by the unions.” TEA and Democrats have colluded to “defy even the most commonsense reforms to education,” Ramsey told reporters Wednesday.

Asked to respond to the suggestion that teachers’ union money buys a lot of Democratic influence and votes, Stewart said, “I only answer to my God and my wife.” He added that TEA tends to favor Democrats over Republicans “because we show appreciation, dedication and determination to help (teachers).”

Haslam ‘Obviously Pleased’ Tenure Reform Bill Starting to Move

Gov. Bill Haslam was walking at a fairly rapid pace as he made his way Wednesday from the Capitol to an event at the War Memorial Auditorium, so it wasn’t surprising he used the word “rapid” in response to a question about his teacher tenure bill.

A quick question was thrown at Haslam about his response to the Senate Education Committee voting Wednesday to approve his bill to change the teacher tenure process.

“I was obviously pleased to see it pass and come out of there,” Haslam said. “We think it’s an important step, and I look forward to its … you know, rapid, uh … to continue to move through the system.”

Things are moving rapidly for Haslam these days — the committee vote just the latest example that the Legislature appears prepared to give the new governor’s proposals approval and priority.

House Speaker Beth Harwell this week said Haslam’s agenda will probably move ahead of the contentious legislative battle over ending collective bargaining for teachers, with the added intrigue that has surfaced that Haslam may step into that issue.

The tenure bill would change the probationary period for tenure from its current three years to a five-year plan, and teachers would have to maintain high standards once tenure is achieved. They would continue to be watched and could fall back into a probationary period.

Haslam was asked about the vote again Wednesday at the downtown Sheraton, where he attended a Farm Bureau event, then met with reporters. And again, a time element became part of the discussion. One of the most recent issues has been whether the evaluation process for teachers will be ready in time to begin moving forward on reforms.

“I actually have had that conversation about evaluation and how far we are in the process, literally this week with everybody from other governors to President Obama’s education secretary to Bill Gates,” said Haslam, who attended the National Governors Association meeting in Washington last weekend.

“The consensus is this: The perfect is the enemy of good when it comes to evaluation systems. We are involved in a process, but that’s a process that the teachers are involved with in coming up with a system that will work. We can work forever to get the perfect one, or we can go ahead and move forward with what everybody agrees we need to start, rewarding excellence in teaching.”

Advocates for the tenure reform have stuck to the “rewarding excellence” line on teacher tenure changes. Democrats have started to hit back at Haslam, holding a press conference Wednesday saying teachers are being attacked.

One of the points Democrats have tried to make in the last week is that there needs to be the same spirit of cooperation between Democrats and Republicans as demonstrated last year in the special session to make changes in education in the state. The Democrats held a press conference last week bemoaning the lack of jobs bills coming from the Republican governor or from Republicans in the Legislature.

Whether the tenure issue is being rushed or whether the process is being ramrodded is open to debate.

“Any time you have a new system, you continuously evaluate it,” Haslam said. “I come back to this: We can wait forever ’til everybody says it’s perfect, or we can go ahead with what everybody knows now. We should reward excellence in teaching.”

Haslam continues to get the support of former Sen. Bill Frist’s group, SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, which has been involved in many of the legislative reforms in the Legislature.

“Tennessee has historically done a poor job of making tenure decisions meaningful,” David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for the Frist group, said Wednesday. “The bill passed in the Senate Education Committee today ensures that teachers are rewarded for being effective in the classroom.

“Every student in Tennessee deserves a great teacher, and tenure reform will be a critical part of improving teacher effectiveness.”

Teachers have fought hard against the Republican education agenda, although their most vehement protests have been over the collective bargaining issue.

The teachers have also won the support of other unions, such as area auto workers, who have presented a picture of solidarity on Capitol Hill. And the debate comes against the backdrop of battles in several states about benefits for teachers and other state workers.

For now, Haslam and his Republican supporters in the Legislature appear to have the upper hand. The vote in the Senate Education Committee fell along party lines. Republicans Rusty Crowe, Dolores Gresham, Brian Kelsey, Jim Summerville, Jim Tracy and Jamie Woodson voted to advance the measure. Democrats Andy Berke, Charlotte Burks and Reginald Tate voted against it.

It’s awaiting hearing in the general subcommittee of the House Education Committee.

A recent poll by Middle Tennessee State University showed 54 percent of state residents say tenure makes it difficult to get rid of bad teachers, while 29 percent said tenure protects good teachers.

Superkids Waiting

Look! Look! Up on the screen!

A lot of lawmakers at the Tennessee Capitol think teachers’ unions are at least partly responsible for a lot that’s wrong with public education. And now they’ve got a movie to prove it.

More than a dozen members of the state Senate and House of Representatives sat in on a special matinee viewing of the 2010 film Waiting for ‘Superman’ in a Legislative Plaza hearing room one afternoon earlier this month. The screening was organized by Germantown Senate Republican Brian Kelsey and the film’s producers, who’ve shown the award-winning documentary to policymakers and education reform groups around the country.

Republican and Democrats alike who watched the movie all said afterward that they’re troubled by the state of education in America generally, and in Tennessee particularly. The film, they said, strengthened their resolve to effect positive change that is “about children, not adults,” a theme central to Waiting for ‘Superman’.

Another Inconvenient Truth

Released on DVD just last week, Waiting for ‘Superman’ follows the plight of several students and their families as they try to escape floundering public school systems by gaining entrance and new opportunities in more successful charter schools.

It is directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, a film credited both with dramatically raising the public’s alarm over global warming and bestowing environmentalist sainthood on Al Gore, Jr.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ takes its title from a comment made early on by one of its main figures, a successful charter-school founder in New York named Geoffrey Canada.

“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist, because even in the depths of the ghetto, you just thought he was coming,” recalls Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Wanna Be Your Superhero

Memphis Democrats John DeBerry, Jr. and Lois DeBerry (no relation) were among those who attended the screening of the film in Nashville. Both indicated they found it provocative and moving.

During a panel discussion on the the film and its lessons for Tennessee, Lois DeBerry, the former Tennessee House speaker pro tem of 24 years — the first African-American woman ever to win that post — became too emotional to speak and had to temporarily withhold her remarks until she collected herself.

“In 2011, I just can’t believe that we’re no further along in educating our children,” she said a while later. “Our children deserve better than this. And as Tennesseans, we can do better than this.”

Lois DeBerry’s obvious frustration, sadness and anger, said Rep. John DeBerry, are feelings shared by most who care deeply about the plight of children, particularly poor children, in failing American schools. “Many of our hearts are broken by what we see happening to many of our children, especially in urban areas,” he said.

“I think that basically we have been in denial in urban areas. For too long we’ve kind of put our head in the ground, and refused to take the bitter pill that there are some drastic and immediate changes that have to be taken,” he added.

DeBerry, Jr. spoke of a “a big pile of money” in public education, and of the many adults eying it, intent on acquiring or controlling how it gets spent. But the providers of education services are not, he said, “as important as the end product.”

“That end product is a student who can think, who can read, who can reason and who can perform in today’s world,” said DeBerry. “The rest of the world is, excuse the expression, kicking our butts, with a whole lot less money, because their education systems look at the child — at the recipient and not the provider. We’ve got too much attention on the providers, and not enough on the recipient.”

Added Lois DeBerry: “Children are waiting for a Superwoman and a Superman, without politics. They are waiting to be educated.”

“You ask me why charter schools are good for Tennessee? It’s because of what we saw in that film,” she said. “Because our kids, all of our kids, no matter where they come from, deserve the very best education that we can give them. And God is going to hold us responsible if we don’t do it.”

Reform Eradicators

Waiting for ‘Superman’ isn’t just about charter schools. It also analyzes the role teachers’ unions play in American schools. And they come off as an obstinate force of obstruction, fundamentally hardwired to resist innovation and experimentation that potentially threatens the status quo.

The movie leaves the audience with the impression that teachers’ unions at minimum hold dual and conflicting loyalties. Union leaders say they have the best interest of students at heart. But oftentimes, the film argues, unions use their considerable political muscle to protect sub-par teachers from professional competition — or even from having to meet basic, on-the-job performance criteria as a condition of continued employment, an otherwise commonplace reality in private-sector working environments.

The system of teacher tenure, for example, is alleged by many who speak in the film to be a nearly impassible roadblock to reforming failing schools.

“In universities, professors are only granted tenure after many years of teaching, and a grueling vetting process, and many don’t receive it,” narrates Guggenheim. “But for public school teachers, tenure has become automatic.”

Geoffrey Canada says in one scene, “You can get tenure basically if you continue to breathe for two years. You get it.”

“And whether or not you can help children is totally irrelevant,” he adds. “Once you get tenure we cannot get rid of you. Almost no matter what you do, you are there for life, even if it is proven you are a lousy teacher.”

Some of Tennessee’s most powerful GOP education-oversight lawmakers are vocal advocates of lessening teachers’ union influence in education policy discussions. And a common sentiment expressed by them after watching the film was that no “sacred cow” will stand in the way of their reform proposals this session.

The nation is watching Tennessee as a result of the state winning more than $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding last year, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. That means bold steps are necessary, both to prove the state is serious about reform, and to enact solutions to problems that others around the country can look to emulate, she said.

Gresham said Waiting for ‘Superman”s portrayal of teachers’ unions as an impediment to education reform rings true to her. It naturally follows that undermining what gives unions their power is key to limiting their capacity to disrupt or thwart brave new initiatives, she said.

“The issue of collective bargaining has to be met head-on, and for many of the reasons that we saw in this film,” said Gresham.

Kryptonite Sold Here

Teachers’ unions and their supporters have denounced Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The National Education Association has even set up a special resources page of anti-Superman criticism.

Waiting for ‘Superman’, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, “demonizes public education, teachers unions, and, unfortunately, teachers.”

“Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” said Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

And as with An Inconvenient Truth, the integrity of Guggenheim’s latest offering has been called into question by the film’s detractors.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is merely “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions,” said a Huffington Post reviewer. “It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change.”

Another professor, Diane Ravitch, an education policy researcher at New York University with ties to the center-left Brookings Institution, wrote in the New York Times last month that Waiting for ‘Superman’ may indeed represent “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” And she acknowledged that the film is “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization” in the “clash of ideas occurring in education right now.”

But she claims the film is more the stuff of “right-wing” fantasy than responsible documentary.

“The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false,” wrote Ravitch.

“(W)hile teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers,” she continued. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”

Ravitch’s conclusion is that expanding market-style competition in America’s public education systems could produce disastrous results. “The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success,” she wrote.

A Legislative Locomotive

The Tennessee Education Association says the GOP’s push to undermine unions this session is rooted in a desire for “political payback” stemming from the TEA’s admitted preference for Democrats when disbursing union political contributions. And to that end, Republicans have proposed ending automatic payroll deductions of government employees’ union dues, which could over time have the effect of drying up a lot of the TEA’s own financial support.

But there’s more to this political beef than campaign cash. Many Republicans blame unions for much of what ails inner city public schools. GOP lawmakers suggest unions have willfully perpetuated failing education systems, which has exacerbated urban poverty and social dysfunction, which in turn undermines the ability of families, neighborhoods and communities to promote and sustain institutions of educational excellence.

“Teachers’ unions have had this death-grip, this ‘let’s-stop-everything’ mentality. And look at where it has gotten us. We are in the cellar not just in the nation, but in the world as far as developed countries’ systems go,” said Knoxville GOP Sen. Stacey Campfield. “The teachers’ unions say, ‘Just leave things the way they are and somehow things will magically change.’ Well, it is not going to change. We have to make changes if we want to see the situation change.”

“The time is now, and if the union doesn’t want to be a pat of it, well then I’m sorry, but maybe they have to be put aside a little bit,” said Campfield, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Kelsey, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, is — along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville — sponsoring school-voucher legislation this year called the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

Kelsey, Ramsey and many other Republicans — as well as a few Democrats — also support expanding the number and role of charter schools in Tennessee, including in the state-controlled “achievement district” that will likely include a number of failing Memphis schools. Finally, there appears to be broad GOP support for making it more difficult for a teacher to earn and maintain tenure, and for prohibiting local school districts from collectively bargaining with teachers’ unions.

Kelsey maintains that his intention for organizing the Waiting for ‘Superman’ screening for lawmakers was not to denigrate teachers in general. In fact, the opposite is true, said Kelsey: He wanted to inspire lawmakers to propose and support reforms that reward teachers who embrace the challenge of producing better educational results.

“Our research has shown us that having a great teacher in the classroom is the No. 1 way to improve education,” Kelsey said. “And in fact, we undervalue great teachers.

“On the other hand, often, very often — and we have seen this in Tennessee — teachers’ unions are holding us back from educating children,” said Kelsey.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey said the political fact on the floors of both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature is that the GOP is going to drive the debate and agenda on education reform this session. That agenda will involve expanding school choice and forcing education providers to compete for taxpayer dollars, he said.

“I’m a big proponent of competition,” said Ramsey. “That’s the reason I think charter schools are a good way to go. I do think that these scholarships that we are talking about in those failing schools to allow parents to take their money and allow for competition…is a step in the right direction.

“There’s not one magic bullet, I think this film pointed that out. It’s a combination of a lot of things that can improve school systems.”

And Republicans are keenly aware that they couldn’t really ask for a friendlier legislative climate for enacting their favored programs and initiatives, he said.

“The spotlight is on us,” said Ramsey. “In the past we may have used excuses that bills were killed in some committees in the House, or that the governor wouldn’t sign a bill. Republicans, for the first time in the history of this state, have the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate and the governorship. We can’t make excuses any longer, and I think that the time is right, right now, to reform education in Tennessee.”

Ramsey: Education Reform Not About ‘Payback’

Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey on Thursday brushed off any suggestion that a desire for political revenge is motivating the solidly Republican Legislature’s push to reform education this year.

The Senate speaker told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday that he finds it somewhat amusing, however, that the Tennessee Education Association, which is generally seen as favoring Democratic candidates in elections, is complaining that Republicans are targeting them now that the GOP is in charge.

So far, the TEA has come out against four education proposals that include limiting the union’s ability to collectively bargain teachers’ contracts with local districts, banning TEA from contributing to political campaigns, ending public-sector union dues-collections by payroll deduction and restructuring the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System board of trustees. The TEA blasted emails to members asking them to call their local legislators and demand they vote against the proposals.

“No, it’s not payback,” Ramsey, a Blountville Republican, said outside the capitol press room Thursday afternoon. “Look at the bills that have been introduced in the past dealing with charter schools, dealing with tenure reform. Those bills were out there, but now there’s a chance of them passing because we have a Republican majority in the state Senate and the state House and the very people that were very political throughout this whole situation are now saying ‘payback.’ That’s hypocritical.”

Ramsey said he is optimistic the Legislature will pass some type of significant education reform this session, even if the TEA calls in all its political IOUs to try and stop it.

“If they get 17 votes in the Senate and 50 votes in the House, they can stand in the way,” said Ramsey. “But I feel confident with the committees that I have appointed, and the committees that (House Speaker) Beth Harwell has appointed, you’re going to see some changes this year.”

Jim Tracy, a member of the Senate Education Committee and vice chairman of the State and Local Government Committee, told TNReport Monday that he’s not entirely familiar with all the TEA-related bills that have been filed and doesn’t yet have a position on them.

The Shelbyville Republican said he anticipates Gov. Bill Haslam will drive much of the discussion on changes to the tenure system for teachers.

Haslam told reporters Wednesday he hopes there isn’t an “anti-teacher mood” among legislators, but said he was interested in pursing tenure reforms. The governor has yet to release details of his education proposal, but Ramsey said he expects to see new requirements that teachers work four years instead of three before earning tenure. He said he also anticipates that educators will go up for regular tenure reviews roughly every five years.

Tracy, who said he’s run into opposition from the TEA himself in the past with proposals of his own to lengthen the time teachers have to work before becoming eligible for tenure, said he has no interest in trying to lay all the problems of the education system at the feet of teachers.

“We do have to put more accountability on parents,” he said. “We haven’t talked about that much.”

“When I was in school, if I got in trouble in school, I got in trouble at home,” he added. “I’m not sure that is happening today.”

A former science teacher and school board member himself, Tracy said no discussion about education reform is complete without taking up not just the issues of teacher accountability and parental responsibilities, but also the fundamental need for students themselves “to maximize their efforts,” make the most of the opportunities presented to them and take their learning seriously.

Haslam Cautious on TEA Bargaining Issue

Gov. Bill Haslam is so far keeping mum on his official position as to whether public school teachers and their union, the Tennessee Education Association, should maintain collective bargaining leverage over local school boards.

Speaking at a press conference on the Vanderbilt campus Wednesday, Haslam told reporters gathered in the Wyatt Building on the Peabody College campus that he had previously met with the TEA and would be willing to listen to them regarding collective bargaining, but declined to further articulate his current views on the issue.

“There’s certain things that we know that we want to talk about. We do want to talk about tenure. I think that’s real important,” Haslam said.

The governor went on to say that in order for education in the state to move forward, there needs to be more parental involvement, better principals in schools and less blaming of problems in the system on teachers.

“I hope there’s not an anti-teacher mood because the wrong thing to do right now I think is to point fingers at teachers,” Haslam said. “To say that our problem is all teachers’ faults is just dead wrong.”

Deputy Gov. Claude Ramsey told reporters Tuesday that Haslam had engaged in a “nice conversation” with members of the TEA on Monday in what he described as “a get-acquainted situation.”

“The governor didn’t pull any punches…he talked about his interest in tenure and his interest in charter schools, and he talked some about principal training and professionalism, and how we help education do the job that needs to be done,” said Ramsey.

GOP Caucus Chairwoman Rep. Debra Maggart recently filed a bill that would eliminate collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and school districts. “You’re going to see some of us file some legislation that probably the old guard’s not going to like,” she told TNReport.com on Monday.

The TEA has issued statements denouncing Maggart’s bill and two others by Republican lawmakers seeking to restrict certain public-sector union fundraising practices and political activity.

Below are some of Haslam’s answers to questions at Wednesday’s press conference:

Reporter: A few things with Tennessee Education Association – one of them would take away collective bargaining rights, others would take them off the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement Board – your thoughts on these? Is this something you’ve met with TEA and Republican leadership?

Haslam: I’ve had good discussion with both. We met with TEA and actually had a really good frank conversation. There’s certain things that we know that we want to talk about – we do want to talk about tenure – I think that’s real important. We do want to talk about continuing to expand charter schools. Some of the other things in terms of collective bargaining – I told them we were willing to listen to them. I met with some Republican legislators for dinner last night and heard some ideas there; not something we’ve come out with a final position on – we’ll continue those conversations. Like I said, we know two or three things we definitely want to enter the discussion in a big way on.

Reporter: Is there somewhat of an anti-teacher mood out there, or an anti-TEA mood?

Haslam: I actually think that’s a really good point. I hope there’s not an anti-teacher mood because the wrong thing to do right now I think is to point fingers at teachers, OK. I think what we should start with the basis of is saying how do we really help move education for children forward. And to say that our problem is all teachers’ faults is just dead wrong. I think (with) a lot of things in Tennessee we need to do better. We need to increase parental involvement in schools, we need to make certain we have the very best principals in schools. So to point the finger at teachers and say it’s all your fault – that’s something you won’t see me doing. Now, there are places we won’t engage – do I want to engage on tenure and that issue, you bet. So will we maybe disagree with TEA on that, you bet. But it won’t be about saying that teachers are at fault here.

Reporter: Going back to K-12, do you think that teachers and the TEA should maintain their bargaining rights?

Haslam: Well, I mean, I think that’s part of the discussion we should have. Ultimately, you know, I’m obviously a guy who thinks that you want to have – people should have a seat at the table when it comes to discussions. As a mayor, I was always – I worked against having our police and firefighters have collective bargaining rights, so I kind of have a position on that. I do think with TEA – I told them it was something I’m willing to talk about with them and continue. …We’re going to have a lot of discussion around tenure, a lot of discussions around charter schools and a lot of discussions around…how do we measure teachers’ effectiveness, and make certain we use that data in terms of how we look at these teachers.

Reporter: But when you start that discussion, what’s your position? What do you present?

Haslam: Well, the governor doesn’t always, on every item, present his position. A lot of times as governor you come in and listen and you learn, and then you present your position. …We have definitive positions we’re going to present right off the bat. Others, we’re willing to listen and learn before we come back with, “Here’s where we’re going to be.”