Virginia Senate Shelves Teacher Contract Bill

March 8, 2012

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Senate rejected the most sweeping component of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell's education agenda Thursday, shelving for this year legislation that would make it easier to fire public school teachers.

Senators voted 23-17 to send the bill back to the Education and Health Committee and carry it over until the 2013 session.

The bill would have phased out continuing contracts, which are akin to tenure, replacing them with three-year contracts that administrators could refuse to renew for any reason. Current teachers would have been allowed to remain on continuing contracts, but new hires would have been given three-year deals accompanied by regular performance reviews.

The Virginia Education Association, which represents the state's 100,000 public school teachers, vigorously fought the proposal. The VEA said the bill would erode due process protections and allow administrators to fire teachers for reasons other than job performance.

"Teachers can be — and are — dismissed every year for underperformance," VEA president Kitty Boitnott said in a statement after the Senate's action. "But they are afforded the opportunity of a hearing and proof of good cause."

She also said it would make it tougher to attract qualified teachers to Virginia, where teacher pay is $7,000 below the national average.

"Teachers that might have come to Virginia would opt for other states with better pay and working conditions," Boitnott said.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sen. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, asked that the House-passed bill be returned to committee, noting that it wouldn't take effect anyway until July 1, 2013.

"I would suggest for a number of reasons that no harm would be done, and some good may come from returning it to committee and allowing time for further input," Hanger said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, urged his colleagues to reject the motion. He said the bill would stop "the lemon dance," — the practice of a school administrator shipping a bad teacher off to another school rather than jumping through all the hoops necessary to fire an employee.

"Studies out there show that if your children have a bad teacher two years in a row, they will never recover," Obenshain said. "They will never catch up with their peers."

Democratic Sen. Phillip Puckett of Russell County, a former teacher and elementary school principal, bristled at Obenshain's description of struggling teachers as "lemons," the word for chronically defective automobiles.

"This bill does nothing but kicks teachers in the teeth," Puckett said. "It's time we quit degrading the profession of teacher."

Puckett said that when he first started teaching, his bosses tried to help him improve.

"When I became an elementary school principal, I didn't forget that," he said. "I didn't just say, 'You're a lemon, I'm going to get rid of you.'"

Obenshain said the vast majority of teachers do a good job and would have nothing to fear under the legislation.

"The good teachers' jobs are secure," Obenshain said. "This is about giving school administrators the tools necessary to do the job."

Obenshain urged his colleagues not to send the bill back to committee, but to vote it up or down. Had they done so, recent history suggests the result would not have been to his liking. Last month, the Senate voted 22-18 to kill its own version of the legislation.

This time, three Republican senators — Hanger, Bill Carrico of Grayson County and Jill Vogel of Fauquier County — voted with all 20 Democrats to bury the measure in committee.

The decision was the second major blow to McDonnell's education agenda. Lawmakers previously rejected legislation allowing schools to open before Labor Day without getting state permission, but they passed the administration's bill allowing tax credits for contributions to private-school scholarship programs.

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