Haslam Inks Tenure Changes, Questions Fiscal Note on Charter Schools Bill

Teacher tenure will be tied to performance on annual job evaluations beginning next school year, now that Gov. Bill Haslam has signed into law the first prong of his education reform package.

But it could be a while before he gets the chance to sign his other education bill, which seeks to expand the role of charter schools in Tennessee.

“Personally, I’m pleased this was our first major piece of legislation, and I got to sign it first,” the governor said after signing the tenure bill into law Tuesday. “I think this is too important to keep pushing off until we get it perfect.”

With Republicans running the show in both the House and Senate, the measure easily passed through the legislative process. Democrats didn’t voice much strenuous opposition to the general concept of tenure reform, but consistently voted against the measure all the same, saying it would put too much emphasis on a new teacher job evaluation system that isn’t as yet fully operational.

The new law requires new teachers to work for five years instead of three before becoming eligible for tenure. Once they get to that point, their ability to earn tenure will be directly tied to their performance on yearly teacher evaluations that lean heavily on student test scores.

Charter School Bill Moves Forward

As Haslam’s staff was prepping the Old Supreme Court Chambers for the afternoon bill signing, House Republicans were shepherding a charter school expansion proposal through the Education Committee despite criticism from Democrats that the plan would cost local government too much money and potentially elbow out at-risk students from attending charter schools.

The proposal, also the brainchild of the governor’s office, would allow any student to enroll in a charter school, permit the state to OK some charter school applications and lift the cap on the total number of charter schools statewide.

The bill’s projected price tag indicates local school districts’ funding will be reduced by around $4 million during the 2012-13 school year when the looser restrictions kick in. Since funding for education is based on a per-student formula, as children move into charter schools, the tax dollars will follow them. The reduction to local districts is projected to climb to $24 millon by 2023.

“I’m not sure I understand and accept why the fiscal note is as great at it is, but that’s part of the process. We’ll work through that,” said Haslam. “I think at the end I’m convinced it’s good for education in the state of Tennessee.”

But Democrats are still skeptical.

“We’re going to look around one day, and we’re going to have a charter school on every street corner,” said former Speaker Pro Tempore Lois DeBerry before abstaining from the vote. “We’re going to have as many charter schools as we have churches, and that’s not good.

“It gives me heartburn to open enrollment and lift the cap on charter schools.”

DeBerry, who generally describes herself as a supporter of charter schools, said she couldn’t bring herself to vote against giving students a choice on where to go to school. The problem, she told TNReport, is she’s afraid some charter schools are more interested in making money than educating children and will ultimately block out students who come from failing schools or who are struggle academically.

Republicans say those concerns are unfounded, as the legislation requires that charter schools first consider students with low test scores, are currently attending poor performing schools or come from low income families.

Despite DeBerry’s and her party’s objections, Republicans approved the measure and sent it to the Finance Committee, saying that the legislation providing for flexibility of school choice may not be perfect, but they can fix any unintended consequences next year if needed

“It’s not like that this legislation cannot be tweaked if it needs to be tweaked down the road,” said House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican.

The Senate version also awaits a vote in the Finance, Ways and Means Committee.