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.”