Tenure reform leaps first House hurdle, faces full Senate vote today

Tenure reform leaps first House hurdle, faces full Senate vote today

March 10th, 2011 by Andy Sher in Politics Local

NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's tenure-reform bill cleared its first major House hurdle Wednesday and is set for a Senate floor vote this morning.

House Education Subcommittee members approved the overhaul on a largely party-line 9-4 vote with Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, joining Republicans.

Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford, a Sevier County math teacher, said the 52,000-member union still has concerns about the changes, especially the evaluation system, which she says remains under development.

But, she acknowledged to reporters, "From what I have seen so far from the votes that have been made, it [making changes] is not looking good."

During the House panel's debate, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Dunn, said Haslam's legislation continues reforms implemented last year as part of Tennessee's successful quest for a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant.

"Basically, if you talked to anyone, they'd say the current [tenure] system isn't working," Dunn said, adding that it "doesn't really deal with effectiveness."

House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, raised concerns about implementing the system this summer as Haslam plans. It would only apply to teachers who are granted teacher after July 1.

"We at least need to know where we are with this evaluation system" before letting it go into effect, Fitzhugh said, later noting Haslam's bill is "putting the cart before the horse."

Dunn warned students would be harmed by "terrible teachers" if implementation is delayed, arguing current law makes it virtually impossible to fire them.

Acting Education Commissioner Patrick Smith said the new evaluation system will not apply to currently nontenured teachers for at least a year. He said the system can be tweaked if there are problems. Fitzhugh noted Smith won't be around to make sure that happens.

Democrats' attempts to delay the implementation of the new evaluation system until at least July 1, 2012, failed on a straight party-line vote.

The evaluation system will be used in determining who gets tenure. Advocates say tenure protects teachers from arbitrary firings. Critics charge it protects bad teachers.

The bill lengthens from three years to five the amount of time someone must teach before being eligible for tenure. To be considered, teachers would have to rank in the top two categories of a five-tier evaluation process for two consecutive years.

Tenured teachers could be placed on probation again if they miss the top two tiers for two consecutive years.

Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerform, a Sevier County math teacher, said methods of evaluating teachers will not be complete for 60 percent or more of educators in areas ranging from pre-kindergarten to music.

She said current plans call for making them subject to the performance of their entire school, which she called unfair.

Some teachers in Hamilton County, already upset over Republican-led efforts to strip the Tennessee Education Association of its collective bargaining powers, voice concerns Haslam's tenure bill.

"I do agree that the process might need to be changed and tweaked because there are some teachers who probably do need to retire," said Tracy Fletcher, a special education teacher at Alpine Crest Elementary School. "But what he [Haslam] is suggesting is not the right way to go about it."

Fletcher's colleague Salina Jeckel 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 of plans to base part of their evaluations on schoolwide student performance.

According to a 2008 report issued by the Tennessee Comptroller's Offices of Research and Education Accountability, the estimated number of teachers who are dismissed is less than 50 a year.

But no "concrete" figures exist because the state Education Department does not collect them, the report says.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550.