Gov. Bill Haslam submitted his first bills to the legislature Thursday, calling for lifting the state’s cap on charter schools, weakening teacher tenure and limiting damages in negligence lawsuits against businesses.
“When I first started all this, I said our goal is to make Tennessee the No. 1 location in the Southeast for jobs, and we have a legislative effort that reflects that,” the governor told reporters at Legislative Plaza after meeting with House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey.
Haslam said he will concentrate on education because “there’s no doubt preparing a high-quality workforce is one of the keys” to economic improvement. He said tort reform is needed “to make sure there’s a predictable environment” for businesses in Tennessee.
Charter schools now are capped at 90 in Tennessee and limited to students from low-income families who are eligible for federally subsidized lunches. Haslam said his bill will lift that cap and allow all students to attend, but school boards still could choose to limit enrollment.
Regarding teacher tenure, Haslam said he wants to extend the probation period of new teachers from three years to five years. Even then under the governor’s proposal, teachers must grade in the top two of five classes of performance to receive tenure. After receiving tenure, they could lose it again if they grade in the bottom two classes for two straight years.
Haslam’s proposal comes in the middle of a Republican legislative assault on the Tennessee Education Association, including the possible repeal of teachers’ collective bargaining rights, and the governor acknowledged he is asked, “Are you guys not just picking on teachers?”
“It looks like everybody keeps pointing fingers at teachers,” Haslam said. “I’d say that’s absolutely not true. What we’re doing across the board in education in Tennessee is raising standards.”
He said he wants to make it harder for teachers to receive tenure because “we want to take teaching and treat it like a profession and I don’t know any of the other professions that have a situation like tenure.”
Haslam’s tort reform bill would cap non-economic damages in negligence lawsuits to $750,000 and punitive damages to $500,000.
“We want to have the best business climate, and to do that, we want to make sure we’re competitive with our neighboring states. It’s one of the reasons we’re addressing tort reform. We want to make certain that there aren’t states around us that have a more welcoming climate for businesses than we have.”