NASHVILLE-A Republican-backed plan to make it tougher for teachers to win and keep tenure easily passed the GOP-controlled Senate Thursday, despite efforts by Democrats to delay its effects for at least a year.
The bill, pushed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, passed 21-12. A lone Democrat, Sen. Doug Henry of Nashville, crossed party lines to vote with Republicans.
Tennessee is one of 14 states considering changes to teachers' tenure, which provides educators with due process protections from arbitrary firings. Haslam and other critics contend Tennessee's tenure law, originally passed in 1951, makes it too difficult for administrators to get rid of bad teachers.
"This is the administration's effort to make tenure meaningful for teachers, and we believe it provides more flexibility and greater accountability of our teachers in their performance," said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, R-Collierville.
The bill expands from three to five years the time it takes for a teacher to be considered for tenure. It also requires them to fall into the top two ranks of a five-tiered evaluation system based on student performance and more subjective considerations.
Even then, tenure could later be revoked if teachers fall into the two lower tiers for two consecutive years.
Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, and other Democrats argued that the evaluation system is far from complete. The state's value-added assessment testing system, for example, does not currently cover students in pre-kindergarten through second grade as well as special education students. Music, arts, foreign languages and gym teachers are not covered, either.
Officials with the Tennessee Education Association, which represents 52,000 active teachers, said that, under Haslam's bill, those teachers would be evaluated not on how well they are doing in their classroom but on their entire school's performance.
"My only concern is those teachers being evaluated should have the right to know what they're being evaluated on as they go into the process," Stewart said. "Let's wait and really know what we're talking about before the bill is implemented."
Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, countered that "for that third grader who finds herself struggling to read with a underperforming teacher, we cannot afford to wait another year to enact this bill."
The amendment was tabled on a party-line vote.
Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, complained that Republicans are rejecting the bipartisanship approach used last year when Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and legislative Democrats and Republicans worked together to win a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant for education.
"That's not the way we're doing things this year. It's just not," Berke said. "It's not the way we're doing things on education. ... This wasn't introduced with bipartisan support. It wasn't introduced with bipartisan cooperation."
When that happens, Berke warned, "sometimes we miss the focus and where it should be - which is our children."
Norris said that the legislation lawmakers passed last year to qualify for the federal grant said Tennessee would have an evaluation system in place by July 1. The new legislation is not punitive to teachers, he said.
"There are improvements there to help our teachers," he said. "We want them to feel as much at ease and as good about these reforms as we do. Because, at the end of the day, it's about helping the children, not upsetting the adults."