By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II
NASHVILLE - A batch of new laws are taking effect in Tennessee on Friday, including a measure that toughens tenure requirements for teachers and another that is billed as fighting terrorism but that Muslim residents worry has targeted them for unfounded suspicion.
The tenure law, another bill that took away teachers' collective bargaining rights and anti-terrorist legislation were the most contentious of roughly 500 bills that passed the Legislature in this year's session. Opponents showed up at the Capitol to protest the proposals throughout the legislative process.
The tenure law requires a teacher to be on the job five years instead of three to get tenure and creates a way for job security to be revoked for poor teaching performance.
Critics of the law say the evaluation system to be used is suspect and that it hasn't been determined how best to rate educators whose subjects aren't covered by the state's value-added test scoring program.
Teacher Larry Proffitt will be affected by the new law. The 47-year-old teaches language arts and social studies at Greenbrier Middle School in Robertson County. He's going into his second year after teaching five years in another county, so he's not tenured.
"They want to perfect it while we put it into practice," said Proffitt, who was among teachers that jammed committee rooms to protest the measure as it progressed. "This is something that's going to affect a lot of people's jobs."
The Tennessee Board of Education approved the evaluation model last month. State education officials, as well as Gov. Bill Haslam, who has made education reform a top priority during his first term, acknowledge the evaluation system may need some tweaking.
"I don't think any of us would say that we've reached the magic formula that we like," the Republican governor said recently. "But as I've said all along, we can't wait for it to be perfect before we go with it. I do think we're on the right path. We need to have a way that we evaluate so that we can recognize those teachers who are great and need to be compensated more, and those teachers who maybe shouldn't be in our classrooms."
Another education-related law taking effect Friday overwhelmingly received bipartisan support. The measure - sponsored by Democratic Sen. Charlotte Burks of Monterey and Republican Rep. Harry Brooks of Knoxville - says a third-grader can't be promoted until he or she can "perform the skills required in the subject of reading as demonstrated by the student's grades or standardized test results."
In the case of the anti-terrorist law, the measure is actually a watered-down version of legislation that originally sought to make it a felony to follow some versions of the Islamic code known as Shariah, which is a set of religious teachings for believers to follow. The bill was later stripped of references to specific religions.
It also eliminated authorizing the governor or attorney general to decide whether a person or group is a terrorist organization, leaving that authority with the federal government.
Despite the changes, the law is still derided by Muslims, who feel the original version left a stain of demonization that's hard to remove. Hundreds of members of the Muslim community spoke out against it.
"No matter how hollowed down it is, it still carries that mark that it began with," said Gadeir Abbas, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations. "It was intended to discriminate against Muslims in an unprecedented way."
Besides the anti-terrorist law, there are several others taking effect that tackle crime, such as one to curtail the production of methamphetamine through the use of an electronic tracking system, and another that would make random killings subject to the death penalty.
"Some of these anti-crime bills had been pending for many years," said Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. "I am very pleased with the legislation passed this year, especially considering tight budget constraints we faced."
Another issue that has been heavily debated over the years, and is now taking effect, would place greater regulation on traffic cameras.
The law decrees that speed cameras can't be located within a mile of a 10 mph drop in the speed limit and that tickets can only be issued for vehicles entering an intersection after the light has already turned red.
The measure also requires local governments to conduct independent traffic engineering studies - without the influence or money of private vendors - to determine the location of future cameras.
"In the past, there may have been those cameras that were set up for revenue enhancement," said House Transportation Chairman Vince Dean, an East Ridge Republican and one of the bill's main sponsors. "I think part of what this law does is try to make sure that's not the case in the future."
Some other measures passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor are already in effect while others have Jan. 1 start dates.
Haslam last week called on fellow Republicans in the Legislature to reduce the number of bills they introduce as a way to carry out their call for smaller government.
The Republican governor said he would like the number of bills reduced by one-third, or from the about 2,200 filed this year to the 1,500 range.