Tensions Run High at Capitol as Education Bills Face Floor Votes

Tennessee lawmakers are close to approving stricter standards for teachers to earn and keeping tenure.

The plan has passed both chambers of the Legislature, but needs a final look in the Senate next week before it heads to the desk of Gov. Bill Haslam, who proposed the legislation to start with.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s bill would subject new teachers to a five-year probationary period, instead of the current three, before they could be considered for tenure. Teachers would be evaluated annually, and they could lose protected status after two years of poor performance.

Although its passage appears certain, the bill must go through one more round of voting in the Senate as early as next Thursday to clear up technical differences between the two chambers’ versions of the bill.

“The governor’s tenure bill passed with overwhelming support in the Senate earlier this month, and we foresee no problems in passing it once we receive the bill from the House,” said Adam Kleinheider, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s spokesman.

Democrats say they believe the tenure reform is largely a good idea but still argue that the new law would be premature if it goes into effect for the 2011-2012 school year. The bill would tie tenure to performance based on a set of evaluations the state is still testing.

“The important part is we’re just getting this cart before the horse,” said Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, the Democratic caucus leader. “We need to know what the evaluation system is before we adopt a major revision of our tenure.”

Republicans in the House approved the bill Thursday on a 65-32 vote margin with all but one Democrat, Rep. John DeBerry of Memphis, voting against. The Senate voted 21-12 in favor of the bill two weeks ago, also with the help of a lone Democrat, Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville.

Teacher tenure is one of Haslam’s key legislative priorities this year and the first one to make it this far.

The only difference between the House and Senate version is the cutoff for teachers who would be grandfathered in. In the Senate version, teachers who are awarded tenure by June 15, 2011 would not be subject to the new evaluation-based tenure requirements, but the House sets that date as those granted tenure before July 1, 2011.

If passed, teachers would need to meet the following requirements to become eligible for tenure:

(1)  Has a degree from an approved four-year college or any career and technical teacher who has the equivalent amount of training established and licensed by the state board of education;

(2)  Holds a valid teacher license, issued by the state board of education, based on training covering the subjects or grades taught;

(3)  Has completed a probationary period of five (5) school years or not less than forty-five (45) months within the last seven-year period, the last  two (2) years being employed in a regular teaching position rather than an interim teaching position;

(4)  Has received evaluations demonstrating an overall performance

effectiveness level of “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” as provided in the evaluation guidelines adopted by the state board of education pursuant to § 49-1-302, during the last two (2) years of the probationary period; and

(5) Is reemployed by the director of schools for service after the probationary period

Under the new system, educators must score “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” for the last two years of their probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure. Those ranking as “meeting expectations,” “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations” could not be recommended for tenure, although the district could continue to employ them.

Teachers could lose their status if they have two consecutive years of “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations” scores. They would need another two years of “above expectations” or “significantly above expectations” ratings to become eligible for tenure again.

Tensions are running high on Capitol Hill.

Democratic Caucus Leader Mike Turner and Republican Rep. David Hawk butted heads on the House floor Thursday after Hawk publicly scolded legislators for badmouthing a GOP bill to remove the Tennessee Education Association from the ranks of appointees to a school safety board. The bill passed 62-34. Only one Democrat, John DeBerry of Memphis, voted in favor.

Turner, who had just finished calling the legislation an attempt at bullying the TEA and said, “One day there will be a reckoning,” approached Hawk on the floor. The two appeared to engage in a heated exchange before leaving the chamber, followed by at least a dozen legislators. The two returned moments later, saying Turner had apologized.

Both lawmakers told reporters later that pending education bills — including a proposal to curb the power of teachers’ unions — have created a tense mood at the Capitol.

Lawmakers are aggravated, said House Republican Leader Gerald McCormick. He said Republicans are frustrated that Democrats characterize their education bills as attacks on teachers, and Democrats are stressed because they can’t move their agenda forward.

“They’re not used to having to actually consult with us, and they’re certainly not used to being outvoted,” McCormick said, “and I think those tensions are flying pretty high right now, but I think they’ll get used to it.”

Turner said of his GOP colleagues, “We feel like this has not been handled fairly. It’s been rushed through.

“We think a lot of the stuff they’re doing today is punitive.”