February 15, 2012
Legislation making it easier to remove public school teachers from their jobs failed to gain Senate approval Tuesday when two Republican lawmakers declined to vote on the measure, dealing a blow to a key component of GOP Gov. Bob McDonnell's education agenda.
The bill failed 18-20 with Sens. Thomas K. Norment Jr. of James City County and John Watkins of Powhatan County not voting. They cited family reasons.
"I'm married to a teacher, for cryin' out loud. Blood runs thicker than water," Watkins said after the floor session.
Hours earlier, when the bill first came up for a vote, Norment signaled his intention to break from his fellow Republicans and be against it. He told his colleagues about an email he had received earlier in the day from his daughter, a kindergarten teacher. It said, "Happy Valentine's Day. I love you. Don't stick it to the teachers."
Needing every Republican vote in the evenly divided 40-member chamber, GOP senators postponed action while Norment was lobbied heavily by two senior members of the governor's policy staff, Jasen Eige and Julia Hammond. Norment listened patiently before dismissing them, saying: "If it comes to a choice between voting with my family or the governor, I stick with my family."
Had Norment and Watkins voted with their GOP colleagues, the tie-breaking vote would have been cast by Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
The Senate will get another crack at the issue when it considers a nearly identical bill passed by the House of Delegates.
"Despite today's close Senate vote, the governor continues to be committed to this important education reform," said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. "This issue still has a long way to go, and the administration is committed to strongly advocating for the successful House version of this legislation."
Asked whether the House bill is likely to meet the same fate as the Senate version, Watkins said: "It depends on what it looks like when it comes back over."
The bill would gradually move teachers and principals from continuing contracts, which are akin to tenure, to a system of annual evaluations and three-year contracts that would not automatically be renewed.
McDonnell originally proposed annual contracts for all teachers, but substantial revisions were made in committee. One significant change was limiting the three-year deals to new hires, which will allow current teachers to remain on continuing contracts. Another was allowing teachers who change school divisions to remain on continuing contracts. An earlier version would have moved them to three-year deals.
The bill extends the probationary period for new teachers and principals from three years to five years before the first three-year contract takes effect. Teachers would be evaluated largely based on students' academic progress, including test scores, and their contracts could be dropped after three years without explanation. The deadline for telling teachers whether their contracts are renewed would be moved from April 15 to June 15 so students' final grades could be considered.
If layoffs are necessary, decisions would be based on performance rather than seniority.
Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg and sponsor of the bill, said it would improve public education.
"This is one tool we can give to schools in the commonwealth of Virginia that will make a difference," he said. "It's profoundly pro-teacher, pro-kid and pro-family."
The Virginia Education Association opposed the bill, claiming it would strip the current system of due process and allow school administrators to fire teachers who are doing a good job simply because they don't like them. Opponents also argued that weakening job security is no way to attract qualified people to a difficult and low-paying profession.
"The brightest teachers will decide it's not worth the effort to go through what we're proposing in this legislation," said Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk.