NASHVILLE-The Senate gave Gov. Bill Haslam his first legislative victory Thursday when it gave final approval to his sweeping plan to make teacher tenure harder to get and keep.
The GOP-run chamber voted 21-12, agreeing with minor House changes to the measure, a key component of the new Republican governor's education plans.
Haslam spokesman David Smith said the governor is "is extremely pleased that this important piece of legislation is now on its way to his desk."
"Nothing makes as much of a difference in a child's education as the teacher at the front of the classroom," Smith said. "We have many great teachers in Tennessee, and this is a step toward having every classroom led by a great teacher."
The bill was passed mostly along party lines in both the Senate and the House. Only Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, and Rep. John Deberry, D-Memphis, crossed party lines to support the measure.
The bill boosts from three to five years the time it takes teachers to obtain tenure protections. Even then, teachers could face being bumped down to probationary status if they fall into the bottom tiers of a new evaluation process that will be put in place.
That evaluation system is not yet complete - as many as 60 percent of educators, including teachers in pre-kindergarten through second-grade and in art, music and many foreign language classes - are not covered by the state's value-added testing system.
Earlier this week, Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, took state Education Department officials to task about the unfinished nature of the evaluations.
Teachers are "expressing serious concerns and reservations both about their place in the process and the ongoing nature of where we are," said Berke, who voted against final approval of the bill on Thursday. "That causes me great concern and it's hard for me to feel comfortable."
The Tennessee Education Association's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters, said the evaluation system is a major concern of the association's members.
"Until that issue is resolved, I think there's going to be a lot of apprehension among teachers out there," he said.
But House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, called Haslam's changes "reasonable."
"Although I understand the legitimate concerns of the evaluation process, we have been using these evaluation tools for some time now," she said. "I'm convinced that they are an adequate interpretation of how well our teachers are performing."
The bill doesn't directly impact current teachers, but it does add poor evaluations to the list of causes that school administrators can cite in dismissing tenured teachers.
Lawmakers are still debating Haslam's second major education reform bill, which seeks to expand charter schools statewide.