In his first major legislative victory, Gov. Bill Haslam won state House approval Thursday of his proposal to make tenure harder for teachers to earn and to keep.
With Republicans unified in support, the House voted 64-32 for Haslam’s overhaul of the 60-year-old tenure law. The Senate adopted the measure two weeks ago.
The new tenure law will lengthen probation for teachers from three years to five years. To qualify for tenure, teachers must score in the top two of five evaluation categories in the two years immediately proceeding eligibility. If teachers then drop into the bottom two categories for two straight years, they lose tenure and return to probation.
Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville, the Republican sponsor who handled the bill on the House floor, said tenure no longer will mean “that you just got hired for three years and still have a heartbeat.”
To reporters after the vote, he dismissed Democratic worries that few teachers will earn tenure under the new system.
“I hope people are not going into the teaching profession to get tenure,” Dunn said. “I hope they’re getting into it to educate our children to make a difference in their lives. To me, I bet you if you ask a lot of teachers, tenure is not first on their priority list. It’s being with children and seeing that light bulb go off over their head. That’s where they get their reward.”
School principals now are forced to fire poor teachers after three years rather than give them tenure, Republicans contended. They argued that extending probation actually would help these teachers keep their jobs.
“This gives the teachers more time to earn that tenure status and to improve their skills,” Dunn said.
Democrats tried to delay any changes in the law until the teacher evaluation system is developed. Tennessee Education Department committees are working on that and hope to finish the system by this summer when the new tenure law takes effect.
“We’re just getting this cart before the horse,” House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said. “We need to see this evaluation system before we adopt a major revision in our tenure system.”
Democrats said the new tenure law would chase good teachers out of Tennessee. Some argued penny-pinching principals would fire good teachers after three years so they could hire more teachers at first-year pay.
“Let’s be honest about it,” Fitzhugh said. “Fiscal concerns could get in the way there.”
Rep. Joanne Favors, D-Chattanooga, said, “nobody wants to wait five years” for tenure. “The governor doesn’t have to wait five years for re-election. We do not have to wait five years for re-election. That is absurd to even have that there.”
The tenure law change is one of the governor’s key education reforms. The other is aimed at increasing the number of charter schools in Tennessee. Those schools now are capped at 90 and limited to students from low-income families who are eligible for federally subsidized lunches. Haslam’s bill will lift that cap and allow all students to attend.
“As a state, we have to treat teaching like the honorable and important profession it is and make Tennessee a place where great educators feel rewarded and appreciated for their efforts,” Haslam said after Thursday’s House vote.
“If our goal in education is to grow the number of college graduates and provide a better educated work force for employers looking to relocate or expand in Tennessee, then our effort begins with making sure every child in every classroom learns from a great teacher.”