Democrats opposed to a Republican-supported proposal that would make it more difficult for Tennessee teachers to get -- and keep -- tenure say a bipartisan discussion of the measure is lacking.
The legislation by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam passed the Senate 21-12 on Thursday. Sen. Douglas Henry of Nashville was the only Democrat who voted for the measure.
The companion bill is scheduled to be heard next week by the House Education Committee.
The measure would require a teacher to be on the job five years instead of three to get tenure and would create a way for job security to be revoked for poor teaching performance.
The Tennessee Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, and other Democrats don't like it. They say the evaluation system to be used to make tenure decisions is not in effect yet and that it has not been determined how best to rate educators whose subjects aren't covered by the state's value-added test scoring program.
An amendment by Democratic Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere would have delayed the measure for at least a year, but it failed Thursday, as did a similar proposal for the companion bill in the House Education Subcommittee the day before.
"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. Andy Berke noted how Democrats and Republicans worked together last year on education initiatives to help the state win $500 million in the national Race to the Top education grant competition.
"That's not the way we're doing things this year," said the Chattanooga Democrat. "This wasn't introduced with bipartisan support. When you do that, you miss the focus, which is our children."
Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Lowe Finney of Jackson agreed. "Last year we proved that it can happen," he said. "Why can't that same process be adopted this year? What's the rush?"
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville, who's carrying the legislation for the governor, said federal regulations require specific initiatives to be in place by July and that teachers are not being targeted.
"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."
Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey told reporters later he believes Democrats were trying to be partisan.
"I think they should have come along and voted for this," he said. "There are a lot of people on their side of the aisle that honestly from the bottom of their heart know that this is good legislation."
Henry said he supports the tenure provision because "it's a good idea to tighten it up some."
"Right now you just put in the time, you get your tenure," he said. "That's not true of any other profession."
Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said he understands the legislation is likely to pass this session, but that isn't going to stop teachers from voicing their displeasure.
"It's incumbent upon us to raise concerns, because again, tenure is an extremely important issue, for not only current teachers, but the individuals we're trying to attract into the profession," he said.