Nevada and Tenessee Consider New Education Laws, Following Nationwide Trend

States Take Different Approaches To Education Reform

Nevada could soon join Tennessee in becoming the latest in a long line of states to pass laws that drastically alter the teaching profession.

In Nevada, the changes passed the Senate earlier this week as part of a rushed budget deal, and as of Thursday, await the approval by the House and the signature by Republican Governor Brian Sandoval -- both of which are expected. The proposals would override collective bargaining laws and make tenure more difficult to get. They would also allow officials to put tenured teachers back on probation and would end the practice of laying off teachers solely in reverse order of their seniority.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Republican Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill on Wednesday that immediately strips teachers of most collective-bargaining rights. Legislation passed in March tied teacher tenure and evaluations to student test scores.

While both bills reflect a nationwide legislative push to overhaul the teaching profession, the processes in the two states were different: In Tennessee, like Wisconsin and Ohio, the education bill passed along party lines after November’s major Republican gains in state houses. But in Nevada, like Illinois, the measures have had support from both parties, pitting teachers union against the Democratic party, a long-time ally.

The bipartisan education reform bills often turn out to be more moderate, said Jeffrey Henig, chair of Columbia University Teachers College’s Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis.

“When parties are in balance, key roles often fall to moderates that can build cross-party coalitions,” Henig said. “When one party dominates, especially with a strong mandate, then the policy agenda often gets driven more by the pure ideas that motivate the activists within the party. There’s much less of a pressure to compromise, much less of a notion of pragmatic, incremental reform, and more potential for taking dramatic, or rash steps.”

In single-party states, laws limiting collective bargaining are likely to do away with it almost entirely, Henig said, adding that changes to education laws have come out more sharply in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and Tennessee, all states where Republicans hold legislative power.

Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist at the Tennessee Education Association, told The Huffington Post, “I have been around as a lobbyist for 30 years, and I have never seen a more partisan situation than what we have now.”

The Tennessee law signed Wednesday weakens the influence of the Tennessee Education Association, replacing bargaining with what legislators call collaborative conferencing, a process allows school boards to meet with teacher representatives. In these limited, entirely voluntary meetings, the only issues up for discussion will be salary and benefits.

“The way this thing came into existence was diametrically opposed to collaboration,” Winters said. “This was done behind closed doors.”

Tennessee State Sen. Eric Stewart, a Democrat, said it boils down to politics. “The biggest thing we’re opposed to is that teachers were not consulted in this,” he told HuffPost. “It was as much about political payback as anything, since the TEA typically supports Democratic candidates.”

He added that last year’s successful bid for federal Race to the Top money came as a result of collaboration between the TEA, Republicans and Democrats. “We’ve excluded teachers from the process,” he said. “Last year was Race to the Top, but this year is down to the bottom.”

Emily Ogden, political director for the Tennessee arm of reform group Stand for Children, said her group supported the earlier tenure-related legislation in Tennessee, but stayed out of the collective-bargaining fight. Ogden said the differences between education reform legislation passed in Republican and bipartisan states have more to do with tone than anything else.

“I don’t know if they’re substantively different, but they feel different,” she said. “If something passes with bipartisan support, there’s a good feeling that it’s good policy and not just politics. There’s less of a chance that it’ll become political football that’ll be reversed after the next election.”

Henig said, “Bipartisan solutions are more likely to take it one step at a time.” That seems to be the case in Nevada, where
the laws came from legislative Democrats with a nod from their Republican governor. Instead of eliminating tenure entirely, one of the bills awaiting final approval would instead triple the time it takes to receive tenure.

Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bills, called them “significant reforms,” according to the Las Vegas Sun. Smith did not return calls for comment before publication.

And after the state Senate passed the budget deal that included the reforms on Monday evening, Governor Sandoval tweeted that he was looking forward to signing them.

But Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada State Education Association, told HuffPost that nothing is final yet.

“There were some other supposed reforms that we felt really weren’t reforms at all, but were actually anti-union measures dressed up as reform,” Peck said. “They’re driven by a political agenda.” He said his group supported modifying the seniority system and changing the tenure timeline before Monday evening’s senate session began, but the last-second budget amendments, he said, strip probationary teachers of due process rights and overemphasize scores in teacher evaluations.

Peck said it was “disappointing” and “terribly unfortunate” to see Democrats “too willing to accept at face value the claim that these were real reforms that would improve student achievement.”

In that sense, the times have changed. “The historic model has been of Democrats and teachers unions aligning and resisting the kinds of reforms that are associated with these new efforts to impose accountability regimes and collective bargaining,” Henig said.

“Throughout the country to some extent, the teachers unions are not as strong as they have been." Henig said. "More democrats than historically was the case are willing to stand up to the unions to some degree.”

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