Gov. Phil Bredesen’s legislation to tie teachers’ job security to student test scores won overwhelming approval in both the state House and Senate Friday in the special session to strengthen Tennessee’s entry in President Obama’s Race to the Top competition.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in federal cash on the line, passage came in remarkably swift fashion for the legislature — on only the fourth day of the session — and with little of the usual partisan bickering.
The Senate and House versions of the bill disagree over the makeup of a special committee that would develop the scheme for teacher evaluations. But after negotiations that went into the night, lawmakers settled their differences, voted for their agreement and adjourned. The legislation, optimistically dubbed the “First to the Top Act,” passed the House 83-10 and the Senate 29-3. It mandates the use of student test scores in deciding whether to grant teachers tenure and in annual evaluations of teachers and principals.
Bredesen assured passage by striking a compromise deal with the Tennessee Education Association, which represents 55,000 of the state’s teachers. Under the deal, 35 percent of each teacher’s evaluation would be based on tests that track students' progress over time. Another 15 percent could come from other data to be determined by the special 15-member committee.
In the House bill, Democrats included a provision mandating as many as five minority committee members, a number they said would reflect the diversity of Tennessee’s population. The bill in the Republican-run Senate called for only one minority member.
"What they envision is 14 white men and one minority," House Democratic caucus chair Mike Turner said of Senate Republicans. "That's not acceptable. That's not negotiable."
Asked why he thinks Republicans oppose more minority representation, Turner said: "That goes without saying. Let's just look at this. Democrats try to be fair to everyone. We appreciate everyone, and Republicans don't have the same interest in minorities. They're all white or mostly."
There was one other point of disagreement: The House wanted educators to make up a majority of the advisory panel. In the Senate version of the bill, only five members would be teachers or principals.
"There's an element on the Republican aisle that's not as pro-public education as most of us up here are,” Turner said. “They're more in the home school vein, more private school vein, more voucher vein, more charter school vein. They do not particularly appreciate what public school teachers do in this state. We don't want them to put a bunch of voucher advocates on this thing. That would be detrimental to public schools."
In the final legislation, the Senate agreed with the House version of the advisory committee's makeup in return for House concessions on other details of the bill.
Bredesen said the special session was necessary to change state education law to make Tennessee competitive in the Race to the Top contest. Tennessee is asking for $485 million from the Obama administration. Aides to the governor were putting the finishing touches on the 180-page application, which also includes 340 pages of exhibits and attachments.
In the Senate, Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, were the only no votes. Beavers said she opposed it on 10th amendment grounds, apparently thinking Tennessee should join Texas in refusing to compete for the federal cash.
"I'd be a hypocrite if I railed against the federal government, preached about the 10th amendment" and then voted for this bill, Beavers said. "For myself, if I'm going to talk the talk, I feel like I ought to walk the walk."
But Sen. Brian Kelsey, another 10th amendment champion, said he was holding his nose and voting yes because it would help schools in his district: "For the first time in my career, I like the strings attached to these Obama stimulus dollars."
Marrero said she was voting against it because "I feel like this will undermine our teachers' financial security. I'm standing up for my teachers." Harper wanted the special committee to include more minority members.