Gov. Phil Bredesen’s proposal to require up to half of teacher evaluations and tenure decisions to be based on student testing scores cleared its first major legislative hurdle on Wednesday.
The Senate Education Committee voted 12-0, with one abstention, to advance the proposal that the Democratic governor argues is key to Tennessee’s chances of landing nearly half-billion dollars in federal “Race to the Top” money.
Tennessee currently uses no testing data to evaluate teachers.
The Tennessee Education Association, which represents 55,000 teachers and other educators in the state, had originally held out for using only up to 35 percent of student testing scores.
Under an agreement struck Wednesday, 35 percent of evaluations will be based on value-added scores that track students’ progress on standardized tests over time. Another 15 percent could be drawn from other data like end-of-course assessments or advanced placement scores.
Democratic Sen. Beverly Marrero of Memphis said she abstained from the vote because “I came up here to support the teachers in my district and I think that they were asking an awful lot of our teachers.”
Bredesen said he is working to get previously reluctant teachers to embrace the changes.
“One of the pitches I’ve made to them is don’t just say ‘OK, we’re not going interfere with the legislation,’ and then be passive-aggressive about it for the next four years,” Bredesen said. “I don’t want to do this butting heads with the teachers, who I feel so strongly are the core part of the system.”
Bredesen has urged lawmakers to act swiftly because any changes in the law must go into effect before the Tuesday evening application deadline for the federal money.
The House Education Committee discussed the bill until late Wednesday before deciding to consider several proposed changes Thursday.
Members of the House and Senate education committees spent much of the day asking questions and offering tweaks to the plan.
“There’s are a lot of questions, but I think we all expected that,” said TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters. “And they’re very legitimate questions, so i think they’re on track to probably finish up this week.”
Other elements of Bredesen’s proposal include creating a single school district for failing schools and requiring annual evaluations of all teachers.
Tempers flared on the House floor earlier in the day after House Democratic Caucus Chairman Leader Mike Turner of Nashville announced that a deal was in the works on the testing data.
Turner took offense when Republican Rep. Gerald McCormick of Chattanooga rose to question who had struck a deal when most lawmakers weren’t involved in negotiations.
“I thought that was a legitimate question,” McCormick said afterward. “He said a deal had been worked out, and I wanted to know who had worked it out.”
Turner, who wasn’t given an opportunity to respond from the well, was held back by several fellow Democrats as he rushed down the chamber’s main aisle to confront McCormick.
McCormick said Turner had calmed down by the time they spoke, and explained that the agreement to be discussed was struck between the TEA and the governor.
Turner later had a book of religious proverbs called “Ancient Wisdom” delivered to McCormick’s desk that he inscribed with “To my friend Gerald, I love you.” McCormick said he planned to return the gesture.
The books had been distributed to each House member by Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Franklin.
“It was just a little joke,” Turner said.
Associated Press Writer Lucas L. Johnson II contributed to this report.
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