The Virginia Senate debated Tuesday whether to eliminate tenure-related job protections for public school teachers, one day after lawmakers passed a companion measure in the House.
The Senate bill appeared to be in jeopardy when Sen. Stephen Newman (R-Lynchburg) asked that a vote be delayed until later in the day.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has pushed to end certain job protections for teachers, commonly known as tenure, as a key part of his agenda to improve Virginia’s schools.
The governor’s legislation would give administrators the right to let teachers go without demonstrating just cause — a move that has drawn intense resistance from labor leaders and their allies in the General Assembly.
The issue has largely cleaved along partisan lines, though 12 Republicans voted with Democrats against the House bill. That could make for a tight vote in the Senate, which is evenly split between the parties.
Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) carried the governor’s legislation and spoke in favor of it during Tuesday’s floor debate.
Under the current law, he said, it’s possible to fire a poor teacher — but it’s difficult and expensive. Easing dismissal of underperformers would “help teachers who have long been frustrated about those ... in classrooms next door and down the hall who are not pulling their weight.”
Several Democrats spoke against the bill, including Sen. Richard Saslaw (Fairfax), who said it would do nothing to improve schools. “My superintendent in Fairfax County did not ask for this bill,” Saslaw said.
Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City) also said he would vote no. He said he could not consider the measure without thinking of his daughter, a kindergarten teacher in Williamsburg.
“When she emails me this morning and says, ‘Dad, happy Valentine’s Day, I love you. Don’t stick it to the teachers’ — it makes me pause,” Norment said.
In response, Obenshain he understood that many senators would have reservations about the bill. Even he felt a little uneasy when he was asked to carry the bill, he said.
“But I thought about it and decided that the fact that I’m uncomfortable about this doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t take another look at this and do something that is right.”
As the debate drew to a close, Obenshain told his colleagues that “realities are changing” as states across the country scale back teacher job protections.
Tenure reform “may not come right now, it may not come today,” Obenshain said, “but it is coming.”
Since 2009, a dozen states have enacted tenure reforms that explicitly link teachers’ employment status to student achievement, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Virginia’s legislature is among several — including those in Connecticut, New Jersey, Missouri, South Dakota and Iowa — that are considering changes this year.
“This is an exciting time,” said Eric Lerum, vice president for national policy at Students First, an advocacy organization that lobbies for tenure reform and is led by former D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee.
“So many states are taking this up and really seeing that this is the direction that we can move.”