Democrats hope to break TEA 'impasse'

Democrats hope to break TEA 'impasse'

January 11th, 2010 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE -- A top House Democratic leader said Sunday he remains optimistic that an "impasse" can be resolved between Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Tennessee Education Association over how much weight test scores should be given when making tenure decisions involving teachers.

"I'm still hopeful," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said. "Everybody understands the importance of this."

But the Nashville lawmaker acknowledged that if Gov. Bredesen and the 55,000-member TEA do not reach agreement, it will create problems for at least some House Democrats in supporting accountability changes the governor says are necessary for Tennessee to compete for federal Race to the Top dollars.

"Yes, it does," said Rep. Turner, who noted he had been fielding a number of phone calls over the weekend. "But we'll have to deal with that when the time comes."

Bredesen administration officials are expected to present legislation changing tenure laws to House and Senate committees today in advance of Tuesday's special session on K-12 and higher education reforms.

But efforts by senior Bredesen administration officials and the teachers' union to reach agreement on the use of student performance data -- as measured by standardized testing as analyzed by the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System -- fell apart Friday. Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, continued to insist student test scores count for at least 51 percent in decisions about teacher tenure as well as in evaluations.

TEA directors on Saturday broke with long-standing precedent by unanimously voting to agree to let tests count for as much as 35 percent. But teachers balked at the 51 percent figure.

Both sides have left open the door to more discussion. Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker noted in a statement issued Saturday night that failure to reach an agreement represents a "real lost opportunity" for the state and noted the TEA position "substantially weakens our chances" in seeking Race to the Top funds.

The Bredesen administration believes it can obtain $400 million to $500 million of the $4 billion in federal funds for which states are competing.

In a brief interview Friday night before TEA's Saturday vote, Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, sought to downplay differences between the governor and the union.

"I'm confident they'll be able to resolve their differences and they'll move forward," Sen. Kyle said.

But Sen. Kyle, a gubernatorial candidate, acknowledged it would make "passing the bill that much more difficult" if they do not.

He said, "I have not been in the negotiations. I don't know what their differences of opinion are. Whether these stumbling blocks are sufficient enough to derail the bill, I don't know."

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, a Senate Education Committee member, predicted differences will be resolved.

"We're about to have a comittee meeting tomorrow (Monday) where the legislatiion is presented. I continue to hear from teachers and principals across the area about the proposal. I don't believe that there is a great deal of disagreement. Teachers and a number of elected officials think that we need to have this be part of the evaluation process, and the question really is how much."

Republicans have majorities in both the Senate and the House. Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has predicted the GOP-controlled Senate can and will pass the changes. In the House, Republicans have a 51-48 edge over Democrats. One Democrat in the Tennessee National Guard is expected to be absent because his unit was recently activated.

But Rep. Turner said 11 or 12 House Republicans had contacted him in recent days as administration aides and TEA negotiators struggled to strike a deal.

He said several "are concerned their leadership may not be where they want them to be."

Efforts to reach House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of College Grove were unsuccessful Sunday evening.

What's next

The Senate Education and Finance committees are expected to receive a briefing on Gov. Bredesen's proposed K-12 education today at 10:30 a.m. CST. House Education and Finance Committee members will hear a presentation at 1 p.m. CST.