NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam signed his teacher tenure, bill into law Tuesday, predicting that the effect of his first major piece of legislation "will be felt for many, many years."
The bill makes it harder for new teachers to win and keep tenure protections, lengthening the time it takes a teacher to qualify for tenure from three years to five.
"Three years is too short a time to grant something that's such a great privilege like tenure," he said. "I think the bar had been set too low in terms of as having objective criteria ... [on] who got tenure and this bill addresses that."
Meanwhile, Haslam also saw movement Tuesday on his other education initiative when the House Education Committee approved his bill eliminating a current cap on the number of charter schools and allowing students from all income groups to attend the schools.
During his bill-signing ceremony on tenure changes, Haslam, a Republican, was flanked solely by GOP legislative leaders. He said the law, which goes into effect July 1, continues the efforts of education reform initiated last year by his predecessor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, and the General Assembly.
But unlike last year's reforms, which led to Tennessee's winning a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant, Haslam's teacher tenure bill had little bipartisan support. Only one Democratic House member and one Democratic senator crossed party lines to vote for it.
And while Tennessee Education Association officials said they did not oppose it, the 52,000-member teachers' group never embraced the bill, either.
"One of the reasons this is so important is because so much is at stake," Haslam said
Along with making tenure more time-consuming, the bill also requires new teachers to be granted tenure only if they fall within the top two ranks of a five-tiered evaluation system built in large part on student test scores.
Even after being granted tenure, teachers can fall back into probationary status if they fall into the two bottom rankings for two consecutive years.
Tennessee Education Association members and most Democrats argued that development of objective tests for as many 60 percent of teachers has not been completed. Instead, many teachers face being judged not on the performance of students they teach but on the performance of the entire school, which teachers say is unfair.
Last month, Salina Jeckel, who works at Alpine Crest Elementary School in Hamilton County, noted that in areas such as special education there are no measures of achievement to use.
"I don't know if it's really a realistic evaluation of an individual's performance when it's based on the performance of students they hadn't had an opportunity to work with," Jeckel said.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Haslam said he has told teachers and administrators across the state that "this is too important just to keep pushing off until it we get it perfect."
"I think we have an evaluation committee that's worked hard to get this right, and we will continue to evaluate the evaluations," he said.
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said that so far as he knows, the teachers' union got no invitation to attend the bill signing.
"It would have been nice," said Winters, who noted that, while "we raised questions about that bill all the way through the process, we didn't adamantly oppose it."
Earlier in the day, the House Education Committee voted 12-5 vote to move the charter school expansion bill to the Finance Committee. The Senate version is in the that chamber's Finance Committee.
Currently, Tennessee has a 90-school cap on charter schools, which are publicly funded schools governed by a private board. The schools are exempt from many requirements on traditional public schools.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said that while he supports the concept of charter schools, Haslam's bill is too far-reaching and would drain resources from public schools. It would also allow charter schools to "cherry pick" good students at good public schools, he said.
Current law restricts charter schools to only taking students who are failing, attend failing schools or come from lower-income families. The bill does away with those requirements.
Haslam policy director Will Cromer later said local school boards still "have say over what charter schools they authorize and what focus a charter school has."