The Senate approved Gov. Bill Haslam’s tenure reform legislation Thursday on a 21-12 vote, moving a key part of the governor’s legislative agenda forward.
The bill was heavily debated, with Democrats expressing deep concerns, particularly over whether the state’s evaluation system for teachers is equipped for such a substantive change. Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the bill. All Republicans in the Senate voted for it.
“I’ve said all along I think it’s an important piece for what we’re trying to do with education in Tennessee, so I’m thrilled to see it take one more step,” Haslam said Thursday.
The governor said he did not think the process had been rushed, as has been alleged by many Democrats.
“The concept of tenure is not something that’s new to folks, and how we’re going to work it and use the evaluation process, I think, again is something that has a lot of feedback and input,” Haslam said. “Remember, we have two more years to get that evaluation process right before it impacts anybody’s tenure.”
The bill calls for revamping the teacher tenure process by changing the probationary period that teachers have to complete to become eligible for tenure from three years to five years. Even after achieving tenure, a teacher could be returned to probationary status.
A teacher who is returned to probationary status would have to be evaluated for two consecutive years at a level “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” to keep tenure. The legislation would not affect teachers who already have tenure.
Haslam has said the state needs a way to remove teachers who are not performing up to expectations.
Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, who carried the legislation in the Senate, said he conferred with the House sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, to see if there was any reason to slow the process of approving the bill, in deference to some of the objections about it, but concluded it was proper to move forward.
Norris said the overhaul is designed to make the achievement of tenure a meaningful accomplishment for teachers, and time to get the ball rolling in that regard is now, not later.
Haslam, addressing the time frame concerns over evaluations, has said the state should not let perfection be the enemy of good in improving the tenure process. Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, the Senate speaker pro tem, reiterated Haslam’s observation during the debate with Democrats. The Legislature is moving forward.
Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said he was glad the issue received the amount of debate the Senate gave it, which he said was better than the more political aspects of other legislative efforts, like taking TEA members off various committees, which has been part of the overall anti-union trend in the Legislature.
“I was very pleased. First of all, they talked about education reform for a change instead of just political stuff,” Winters said. “Overall, I thought it was a good discussion. I think the issues around the evaluation system were very valid. If teachers don’t have confidence in that system, whatever you change in the law is not going to work.”
But Winters also spoke to the uneasiness among the ranks of teachers.
“I think for one thing teachers are tired of being held up as the problem in education,” he said. “That’s the downside of this discussion. I think there are some who think they can fire their way out of a problem. That’s just not going to happen. The vast majority of teachers in this state are excellent teachers.
“If they’re not good teachers, they need to go.”
There has been a considerable difference in the tone of the debate over teacher tenure compared to the bare-knuckle battle over the most controversial aspect of education reform, the effort to end collective bargaining rights for teachers. Winters credited Haslam on Thursday for trying to keep partisanship to a minimum on that issue.
“We have never said we’re opposed to any changes in the tenure law. We have said if you’re going to make changes do it right,” Winters said. “Obviously, I think the fact Governor Haslam has stayed above the partisan attacks on teachers that some members, particularly some members of the Senate, are bringing forward is to his credit.
“We want to make him successful in his efforts, and we want to work with him as best we can. That doesn’t mean we agree with everything he’s doing.”
Haslam said he thought the tenure bill has been a little more partisan than it would have been even without the collective bargaining fight. But he said he has found TEA to be helpful in the process.
“I think they understand the concerns about tenure,” Haslam said. “In the conversations I’ve had with them, they were interested in seeing what they could do to help.”
Haslam was asked if he thought the process was moving at a pace he expected.
“I’m a rookie here, so I’m getting used to the process, but so far I’d say it has,” he said.
But it was clear in the Senate debate that Democrats have strong reservations about the change. Most of it has to do with the data available in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, the state’s system of standardized testing, and whether it is sufficient now to bring about the kind of changes being made.
Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, said there was not enough attention to professional development for teachers. Burks said teachers are comfortable with a five-year plan for tenure, as opposed to the three-year threshold.
“The evaluation part is the thing that’s scaring them to death,” Burks said.
“The teachers in my district are feeling very put upon,” said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis. “My teachers are very unhappy.”
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, talked about the bipartisan spirit that occurred during the special session on education in 2010 and that that is missing in the current debate. He said when he retires he may look back and consider the special session his best two weeks in the Legislature.
“In our rush to do this, we’re looking at this system before we even have our evaluations in place,” Berke said.
Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, said there should be more attention to the role of parents in the discussion of education.
The Senate Democrats issued a press release after the Senate vote.
“We have spent yet another job-killing day telling our teachers that they’re the problem,” Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, the Democratic leader, said in a formal statement from the Democrats. “I’m waiting for Republicans to start blaming teachers for our rising unemployment.”
The tenure legislation will be considered the House Education Committee next week.