Lawsuit caps, tenure restrictions on Haslam's to-do list

Lawsuit caps, tenure restrictions on Haslam's to-do list

February 18th, 2011 by Andy Sher in News

Haslam legislative package

The governor's packet of bills seeks to:

Tie tenure to classroom performance. Extends probationary time to get tenure from three to five years.

Removes the current cap on charter schools and allows children from any socio-economic background to attend instead of just those from poorer backgrounds. Allows the state's Achievement School District, which deals with badly performing schools, to authorize charter schools.

Extends use of lottery-funded scholarships for summer courses. Caps total number of hours based on required degree completion.

Limits noneconomic damages such as pain and suffering in medical malpractice and other personal injury actions to $750,000. Limits and clarifies standards for assessing punitive damages.

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam unveiled a legislative package Thursday that makes it harder for teachers to win tenure, opens the doors of charter schools to every child and caps certain jury awards in medical malpractice and personal injury lawsuits.

The Republican governor, who took office last month, presented the proposals to GOP legislative leaders and later briefed media in Legislative Plaza to underscore his priorities.

"When I first started all this, I said our goal is to make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for jobs, and we have a legislative effort that reflects that," Haslam said.

Education is a major part of that, Haslam said. He sought to emphasize that K-12 education changes are "not at all about pointing fingers at the teachers. It's about raising standards for all of us."

He acknowledged that the state made significant strides last year in tying teacher tenure to student test scores, which helped Tennessee win a $500 million grant under the federal Race to the Top competition.

"The truth is, we're still not where any of us want to be," Haslam said.

His legislative proposal increases from three to five years the amount of time someone must teach before being granted tenure. In order to be considered for tenure, a teacher would have to be in one of the top two categories in a five-tier evaluation-ranking process for two years.

Tenured teachers hired after July 1 could be placed on probation if they rank in the lowest two tiers for two years in a row. Teachers hired before July 1 would not be affected.

But teachers who had tenure prior to July 1 aren't off the hook. They will be affected by a change in the definition of "inefficiency," one of the five acceptable reasons for a tenured educator's dismissal. Haslam wants to add poor teacher evaluations to the definition of inefficiency, making them grounds for firing.

The Tennessee Education Association's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters, said the organization has not seen details of the governor's proposals. He said he could not state with certainty what TEA's position will be.

But he noted the group has "indicated to the governor that we're certainly willing to look at his concerns about making it more difficult to achieve tenure."

Asked about including evaluations in the definition of "inefficiency" for purposes of dismissing bad teachers, Winters said he thought officials already can use test data to make a case for inefficiency. But he added, "We'd want to look at it more closely."

Tort reform

Haslam also wants a $750,000 limit on noneconomic damages in lawsuits filed against businesses, saying it will help keep Tennessee business-friendly.

"We want to make sure there aren't states around us that don't have more welcoming climates than we have," Haslam said.

Jill Hudson, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Association for Justice, a civil rights advocacy group, said damage caps "amount to more government, not less."

"Tennesseans are trusted in the ballot box and should continue to be trusted in the jury box," she said.

Haslam also proposed letting students use lottery scholarship money for summer courses and eliminating one of four directors on the Tennessee Regulatory Authority.

Lawmakers' response

House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he is "supportive of what the governor's trying to do."

Citing the proposed changes to teacher tenure laws, McCormick said Tennesseans may support teacher pay increases down the road once they "see that they're more accountable and that we can weed the few out there that don't need to be out there."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner said Democrats will be "100 percent" in favor using lottery scholarships for summer school. But he objected to the proposed changes in tenure laws and to caps on lawsuits involving negligence.

Haslam distanced himself from a battle between Senate Republicans and the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association over eliminating collective bargaining for teachers. A bill to that effect is coming to the Senate floor.

"We've presented those items that we think should be the prioritization for moving education forward. This is what we're going to focus on," Haslam said.

McCormick said House Republican Caucus members are not in complete agreement about the bargaining bill, and he doesn't have problems with the governor focusing on his own priorities.

"All of us have our own priorities," he said. "But he got 65 percent of the vote statewide, so I think we need to pay attention to what his priorities are."