Capitol Hill Week: Teacher tenure reform bill builds on Tennessee’s First to the Top initiatives passed last year

(NASHVILLE, TN), March 3, 2011 –   Education highlighted this week’s action on Capitol Hill as the Senate Education Committee approved teacher tenure reform legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) that builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program.   The legislation is part of a package of bills proposed by Governor Bill Haslam to improve student achievement and give them more opportunities to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“This is the next step in the continuum of education reform,” said Senator Norris.  “Last year, Tennessee made great strides in First to the Top in beginning to address the unacceptably low educational attainment in our state.  In step two of these efforts, we once again have the opportunity to lead the nation in education reform by developing a system that treats teachers as professionals and recognizes the critical impact of their work.  Effectiveness must be the core criteria for gaining and retaining teacher tenure.”
  
Key Provisions of the Senate Bill 1528 include:
 Extends teacher tenure probationary period from three to five years
 Ties the teacher evaluation system to tenure eligibility and requires a teacher to score in the top two (out of a total of five) effectiveness categories on the evaluation in the two years immediately preceding becoming eligible for tenure
 Expands the definition of “inefficiency” as a grounds for dismissal of a tenured teacher to include evaluations demonstrating an overall performance effectiveness level that is “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations”
 For teachers tenured after the enactment of the new law, requires a return to probationary status after two consecutive years scoring in the bottom two effectiveness categories of the evaluation
 Moves non-renewal deadline from May 15 to June 15

“Tennessee is 46th in student overall academic achievement,” said Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham.  “This is a situation that is completely unacceptable and makes it extremely difficult for Tennessee to create jobs. We must have an educated workforce. This is not only important to provide our students with individual opportunities for success, but is critical to the state as a whole.”

The legislation uses the work of First to the Top which, in collaboration with teachers, created an evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness.   The reform initiative passed last year requires annual evaluations using teacher effect data in teacher and principal evaluations.  The evaluation system capitalizes on Tennessee’s two decades of experience with the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) in evaluating student achievement on a year-to-year basis. 

Recognizing the importance of the teacher tenure reform measure to the state’s economy and jobs, Tennessee’s four biggest urban chambers of commerce endorsed the initiative this week.  The heads of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Knoxville Chamber, Greater Memphis Chamber and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce wrote a letter to the governor and state lawmakers that a five-year waiting period for tenure and ongoing reviews after tenure is granted will improve the education quality of Tennessee’s teacher workforce.

“In our respective communities, we work closely with educators and community partners to improve public education,” the chambers said. “Together, we are making progress. Raising performance standards for teachers will make a strong contribution to this effort and benefit students and our communities.”

The bill now goes to the Senate floor for final consideration, while the House has scheduled the bill for a hearing in the House Education Subcommittee on March 9.

Environment Committee hears report on the health of Tennessee’s Forests

The Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee heard testimony this week from Tennessee Forestry Commission Chairman Bill Williams and State Forester Steve Scott about the health of Tennessee’s forests.  Forests cover half the state and provide more than 60,000 jobs.  They also help promote clean water, wildlife habitat and recreation for all Tennesseans.

Williams and Scott provided members of the committee with an assessment of the state’s forest and a comprehensive long-term strategy for addressing important resource issues in the state.  This includes how to preserve working forest landscapes, protecting forests from harm and enhancing public benefits from the state’s forests.

General forest condition trends on Tennessee’s private forestlands include the aging of forests and a decrease in pine forest types.  Another key concern is pests.  Tennessee’s highways and waterways are potential pathways for pest introduction and are cause for concern for several pests currently found in other regions of the continent, many of which are exotic pests.  This includes gypsy moth, emerald ash borer, and Asian longhorned beetle from the north; southern pine beetle from the south; hemlock
woolly adelgid from the east; and, thousand cankers disease from the west.

Oak decline is currently the most pervasive problem within the forests of Tennessee. The report says Western Highland Rim and the Cumberland Plateau have the highest risk, though all other areas of the state support an oak resource at risk from oak decline.

The report calls for a multi-disciplinary approach to protect the forests which includes other key stakeholders like landowners and the general public.  “The goal is to identify the highest priority areas where forest resource professionals and stakeholders can implement the most effective response to issues in those areas,” said Scott.

“Tennessee’s forests are very important to the health and economic well-being of our state,” said Senate Conservation and Environment Committee Chairman Steve Southerland (R-Morristown).  “All Tennesseans have a stake in making sure our forests are sustainable.  This report points us in the direction of the many opportunities we have to improve the general health of our forests. “

In Brief…

Deadly storms — Lawmakers joined Governor Bill Haslam this week in expressing sympathy for the families of the four individuals that lost their lives as a result of Monday’s storms and flooding. Weather-related fatalities occurred in Franklin, Polk, Robertson, and Rutherford counties, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA).  TEMA and the local governments across the state are currently engaged in damage assessments of storm-damaged communities. These assessments are used to gauge whether the state will reach the qualifying thresholds for federal assistance.
Once damage assessments are compiled, Governor Haslam will be able to determine whether the situation warrants a request for federal disaster aid programs.

Sex offenders – Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee gave approval to a bill that requires registered sex offenders who reside in a halfway house or similar facility as an alternative to incarceration to register as a sex offender with the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction over the facility.  Present law does not specify with whom an offender who is a resident of a halfway house must register.  Senate Bill 356, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville), makes certain that all sex offenders are properly registered with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s Sex Offender Registry in the locality in which they are housed. 

Teacher organizations – Two bills were approved in the Senate Education Committee this week to ensure that all teacher organizations will have access to potential recruits.  One measure, Senate Bill 1646 sponsored by Education Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville), requires local education agencies (LEAs) to give all professional employee organizations equal access to LEA employees.  The other proposal, Senate Bill 330 sponsored by Senator Jim Summerville (R-Dickson), requires the state’s public colleges and universities to give equal access to any professional educator’s organization if access to students in teacher training programs is granted.   

Drug interchange / anti-epileptic medication — The Senate General Welfare Committee has approved a bill that allows a drug interchange to take place for anti-epileptic medication.  Senate Bill 335, sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), applies to cases when the prescribing physician indicates to a pharmacist that a substitution is acceptable by writing “Notify of Interchange” or “NOI” on the prescription.  Interchange will occur for only the specific prescription given to the patient and for the time period that the prescription is valid.  This bill also requires that notification to the prescriber should occur prior to dispensing, if possible, and does not apply for prescriptions written for in-patients or out-patients of a hospital, nursing home, assisted living facility or corrections facility. 

“Bath salts” / illegal drugs — The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation to add six chemical derivatives of the substance methcathinone to the list of Schedule I drugs.  Senate Bill 329 calls for violation to be subject to a Class B felony and fine of up to $100,000.  Law enforcement officials have reported a dramatic rise in the sale of the drug in some convenient stores, adult book stores and other specialty shops.  It is often known by its street name of “bath salts” and has effects similar to meth or the drug Ecstasy.  Hospitals are also seeing a dramatic increase in cases of this dangerous drug which can result in death.  The bill now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration of its fiscal impact.

Knowing exposure to hepatitis – The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved Senate Bill 52, sponsored by Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville), that makes it an offense for a person with hepatitis B or C to fail to notify a person whom they engage in intimate contact with of that condition, whereby hepatitis could be transmitted.  The bill also applies to those who knowingly expose another to hepatitis by donation of blood, tissue or other potentially infectious body fluids, or through use of needles or other drug paraphernalia. 

 “No State Income Tax” Amendment — A “No State Income Tax” constitutional amendment resolution was approved in the Senate Finance Committee this week and heard on first reading by the full Senate.  Amendment resolutions must be read three times before the State Senate can cast a final vote on the measure.  Senate Joint Resolution 18, sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), would clarify a prohibition in the Tennessee Constitution against an income tax and payroll tax.  The proposal specifies that the legislature as well as Tennessee counties and cities shall be prohibited from passing either an income tax or payroll tax, which is a tax on employers measured by wages they pay their workers. 

Bovine (cows) / Liability – The full Senate has approved Senate Bill 339 sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile (R-Gallatin), related to the liability of owners of cows.  The bill is modeled after the Equine Limited Liability Law for horses which limits the liability of equine professionals and event organizers in case of injury or death resulting from the risks inherent in participating in equestrian activities. The legislation provides that in the event someone is injured on the bovine owner’s property as a result of that individual’s negligence or the unpredictable behavior of the cow, the owner is exempted from being held liable provided signs are posted regarding the limitation of liability.

Fallen heroes – Legislation was approved by the full Senate on Thursday calling for counties and cities to fly Tennessee’s flag at half-staff when the governor declares a day of mourning for armed services members who have died in the line of duty.  The measure, Senate Bill 34, expands on  Public Chapter 169 which was approved last year.  That new law proclaims a day of mourning in honor of these fallen heroes and calls for their names to be recorded in the journal of the Senate and House of Representatives. 

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