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.