By Mechelle Hankerson
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – The Virginia Education Association, which represents the state’s teachers, can breathe a little easier about legislation to overhaul how teachers are hired and evaluated.
VEA leaders were alarmed Monday when the House voted 55-43 for a bill that would end what critics describe as a tenure system for public school teachers. Under the bill, sponsored by Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, R-Staunton, new teachers and principals would receive three-year contracts instead of continuing contracts – making it easier to fire them.
Bell’s House Bill 576 has been sent to the Senate and assigned to the Senate Education and Health Committee.
But on Tuesday, the Senate killed its version of the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg. The vote was 18-20, as all of the Democratic senators opposed the bill and two Republican senators declined to vote.
The defeat of Senate Bill 438 bodes poorly for HB 576. That’s something of a relief to VEA President Kitty Boitnott.
Boitnott called the legislation “a huge, huge mistake.” Virginia teachers feel under attack, and some are considering leaving the state to pursue their teaching careers elsewhere, she said.
“We won’t be able to replace them,” Boitnott said. Instead of punishing teachers, she said, the most effective K-12 education reforms would be systemic and would focus on raising salaries to attract and retain high-quality teachers.
The association has announced Friday as a “VEA Day of Mourning” or “Black Friday.” The group is encouraging teachers to wear black “to illustrate your collective mourning over the attack that has been launched against Virginia’s teachers and students by legislators with open disrespect and disdain.”
As originally written, HB 576 would have put teachers on one-year contracts. The bill was amended to provide for three-year contracts – after the teacher or principal has served a probationary five-year term.
Also under the legislation, school boards would adopt an evaluation process based on state guidelines, and student academic success would account for 40 percent of the evaluation.
“If we had this when I was teaching, I would’ve embraced it,” said Bell, a retired teacher.
During Monday’s debate, Delegate Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, a high school government teacher, urged his colleagues to approve HB 576.
“This is one I really want to emphasize for the children,” said Cox, the majority leader in the House. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think mediocre teachers aren’t bad teachers.”
Boitnott said the idea of a bad teacher is too subjective.
“Everybody can probably think of at least one teacher that they had over the course of their career that they didn’t think was as effective as they could’ve been or perhaps should’ve been, (but) that same teacher may have made a huge difference for another child,” Boitnott said.
The bill would provide money for training principals to effectively and fairly evaluate teachers. Bell said this is a way to address the VEA’s concerns.
Cox said the bill was just one example of the reforms needed in K-12 education.
“We are naive if we think public education is perfect. We can make K-12 better by passing this bill,” he said.
Cox’s enthusiasm was also met with doubt by House Democrats.
Kenneth Plum and Kaye Kory, Democratic delegates from Fairfax, both favored giving more responsibility to local governments and school boards to determine contract and evaluation terms.
Gov. Bob McDonnell endorsed Bell’s proposal, but Plum reminded the House that McDonnell also has emphasized the importance of local governments throughout the session.
“We should be supporting local governments, not micro-managing from Richmond with the idea being that we’ve been to school, so we know best,” Plum said.
Kory agreed. She also expressed concern about the future of teachers in the state.
“This is not the way to attract good teachers,” she said. “This is a way to drive them out of Virginia.”
Democrats also questioned whether it is necessary to overhaul the rules governing teacher contracts and evaluations.
Delegate Jeion Ward, D-Hampton, serves as president of the Hampton Federation of Teachers. She said there are processes in place to help and replace poorly performing teachers.
“It is very easy to get rid of a bad teacher,” Ward said.
Boitnott agreed that administrators “already had the tools and resources to remove a teacher, and shame on them if they didn’t do it. That’s a broken administration system. That’s not on the VEA; that’s not on teachers. That’s on a system that hasn’t been properly implemented.”
After the measure passed, McDonnell issued a statement to thank Bell for carrying the bill. The governor said the measure is important for Virginia’s students.
“This legislation will recognize our teachers for their success; provide teachers and administrators with benchmarking and performance measures; and, in the end, yield better results for our students,” McDonnell stated.
“I am pleased that the House of Delegates recognizes the importance of this legislation that will ensure our students have access a world-class education taught by Virginia’s best teachers.”