Education Reform Moves Ahead in Tennessee

While Wisconsin remains the face of the war over teacher's unions, a number of other states are moving to reign in out-of-control unions or reform education policies.

Tennessee is among them. Not only is collective bargaining in question, but Governor Bill Haslam has a proposal to make it tougher for teacher's to get tenure.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education released a video with former Senator Bill Frist highlighting how the problem of teacher tenure is driving up costs and directly hurting the education of Tennessee's kids.

According to the Associated Press, it sounds like the Tennessee Educator's Association has given up fighting this change:

Tennessee Education Association lobbyist Jerry Winters said he understands the votes are there for the proposal to pass this session, which is why the TEA plans to make sure all teachers understand the new rules. "We think until teachers know the rules, which will be outlined in the evaluation system, it could have a negative impact on attracting new people into the profession," he said. "So, we're going to work hard to educate prospective teachers and current teachers that would be impacted about the evaluation system. We're not going to adamantly oppose these changes, but we do think they need to know the rules of the game."

The bill passed the Senate and is heading to the House this week.

The tenure change isn't that tough. Instead of getting automatic tenure and job security after three years, teachers would have to work five years. Is there any other sector where you have automatic job security after five years?

The collective bargaining issue is a separate bill and is expected to go before the Senate this week. That's where the fireworks can be anticipated.

Will the war over collective bargaining get as bad as Wisconsin? The stakes are slightly different in the Volunteer State. It's a Right to Work state, and teachers are the only public sector employees that have collective bargaining.

Once unions lose their collective bargaining rights, there's little incentive for members to join a union in a state like Tennessee. This law basically spells doom for teacher's unions and their political clout (as this badly designed TEA t-shirt demonstrates).

Yesterday, the TEA joined a union protest that sent seven people to jail. The Tennessean describes the crowd as in the "hundreds," so does this group have the momentum to turn into Wisconsin chaos? Depending on the movement of the bill, these groups could make a lot of noise. Per The Tennessean:

The crowd included civil rights activists, students and members of more than a dozen unions who amassed at noon on Legislative Plaza, in the largest weekday rally so far by labor groups since the Republican-led legislature took up debate last month on a bill that would strip the state’s teachers’ union of its ability to negotiate contracts with local school districts.

The Nashville City Paper, explains that another lobby day event is scheduled for March 23 by Big Labor:

Pro-labor activists will have a chance to again show their support, as another rally has been called for March 23. A coalition of organizations including Common Cause, Tennesseans for Fair Taxation and Tennessee Citizen Action has formed a group called “Tennessee Priorities” and is sponsoring the rally and a day of lobbying legislators.

This fight isn't just at the state or national level. Local school boards are engaged in negotiating with teacher's unions. Per The Tennessean (via J.R. Lind), Rutherford County has temporarily suspended negotiations with the teachers union until this bill is decided.

As George Scoville notes, Sumner County questions if the local teacher's union even has the 50%+1 needed to engage in collective bargaining. In the article, the Sumner County school board president notes how unions have stood in the way of positive change for low-performing schools:

He said the union has prevented incentive pay programs to get top teachers and principals to work in low performing schools. Long said slow approval from the union has kept Sumner teachers from getting $400 to $1,500 Christmas bonuses in time for the holiday.

Few would argue that Tennessee's education system needs desperate reform. While I would love to see Tennessee pass reforms like Florida or Indiana are trying, anything at this point is an improvement.

In a previous job, I spent thousands of hours going over education data for grants. It's bad. I used to cringe every time I opened up the Tennessee Report Card. While graduation rates have improved, they're still only graduating 75% of students. That sounds great until you realize that one-quarter of all students enrolled in Tennessee public schools never get their high school diploma. What kind of job can you get without a high school diploma?

In Hamilton County (Chattanooga), where I'm from, public schools have such a bad reputation that most people opt out. The last time I saw statistics published in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press, around 25% of school-aged children were enrolled in private schools. This was one of the highest rates in the country. Part of that is cultural, and part of it is the fact that Chattanooga has nearly 50 private schools (at least 9 private high schools) within the county. Chattanooga also has one of the largest homeschool associations in the country.

Parents are terrified to send their kids to public school. Despite paying property taxes, thousands of families opt to send their kids to private schools over the public system. I was one of those kids and received a superior education for my parents' efforts. The high school they are zoned for is one of the worst suburban high schools in the district.

Gov. Haslam's proposal to invest in charter schools is promising. If done correctly, charters can provide parents an alternative from a broken system.

Tennessee, among other states, has the opportunity to fundamentally reform the education system and give students what they deserve. If any of these measures pass, Tennessee's kids already have a brighter future. For too long, teacher's unions have remained a sacred cow of the left, and the right has been too afraid to take on beloved teachers. This has created decades of bureaucracy and directly hurt kids. It's time to change this.

Adrienne works in the conservative movement and blogs at Cosmopolitan Conservative and Adrienne Loves.

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