NASHVILLE - Gov. Bill Haslam's plan to make it harder for teachers to win and keep tenure is headed to the Senate floor after easily clearing the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.
The Republican-controlled panel approved the landmark measure on a party-line 6-3 vote after a relatively brief 40-minute debate.
Haslam, a Republican, said he was "pleased to see the first step happen."
Among other things, the bill expands from three years to five the time it takes for new teachers to achieve tenure, which is designed to protect teachers from unfair dismissals. They are eligible for tenure only if they fall into the top two tiers of a five-tier evaluation process.
Teachers risk losing tenure protection if they fall out of the top two tiers for two consecutive years.
Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford, a Sevier County math teacher, warned committee members the state's teacher evaluation system on which the process rests remains under development.
For some 60 percent of teachers, including art, music and foreign language instructors, evaluations may be based in part on systemwide data and not on what takes place in their classrooms, she said.
"Due process and continued employment should not be based on an uncertain evaluation system or on the data from students who are not inside their classroom," Summerford said.
The issue drew concerns from Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga.
"My question is, what's magical about doing this right now, as opposed to ensuring that we get our evaluations straight?" Berke said.
Haslam's acting education commissioner, Patrick Smith, said that the evaluation system would not go into effect until July 1. The law would not affect currently tenured teachers, he said.
"We will have two years under our belt with the new evaluation system in which to make an assessment of its integrity," Smith said.
Speaking later to reporters, Haslam downplayed the possibility of evaluation problems, noting he had discussed the matter with fellow governors meeting in Washington last week, and others.
"The consensus is this: The perfect is the enemy of good when it comes to evaluation systems," Haslam said. "We are in process, but that's a process that teachers are involved with. ... We can work forever to get the perfect one, or we can go ahead and move forward."
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, charged that "it seems like Democrats are bought and paid for by the unions."
Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, rejected that, saying, "I only answer to my God and my wife. And it's kind of odd they bring up political contributions ... the fact of the matter is that teachers appreciate folks on my side of the aisle because we show appreciation, dedication."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550.