Tennessee Education Association

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TEA pushes back on state board attempt to expand power over teacher licenses

Proposed rule changes would jeopardize teacher licenses, limit local control over teacher discipline

TEA has objected to massive changes in the teacher licensure rules proposed by the State Board of Education, and halted an attempt to quickly pass them in a key legislative committee. 

Now the state board is trying to circumvent the law on passing rules by labeling them “emergency” and stating that  students’ safety is at stake. 
The idea that students were at-risk under current rules is a sham.   

The proposed new rules would grant broad new powers to the board for disciplining teachers and suspending licenses, often using vague definitions and relying on terms that vary between school systems. TEA sees these proposed rules as a power grab and a threat to the teaching profession in Tennessee. 

“We have tried to point out to the board throughout this process that what they are proposing has serious flaws and that the board currently does not have the power to enact and enforce these rules under Tennessee law,” said Steve McCloud, TEA assistant executive director for legal services. “While the board does have a right to revoke a teaching license of a teacher who has been convicted of certain crimes, and to enact rules to suspend, deny or revoke a license of a teacher in default of a student loan, that is the limit of their authority with regard to licensure discipline. In order to expand their power to suspend and revoke licenses and weigh in on what are currently local discipline issues, a law would need to be enacted through the General Assembly.”   

The board staff had pushed for a vote on these proposed rules at the July meeting of the powerful Government Operations committee, a panel of House and Senate members that must approve all new rules proposed by state agencies. But the board withdrew its proposed rules from the committee when TEA objected and petitioned for a public hearing on the issue. 

The next step was to have a frank and informative inquiry on the rules before the board, prior to any re-submission to the legislature. Rather than having a public hearing, the board will now vote at their July 29 meeting on the extraordinary step of passing emergency rules, often seen by legislators as a way to try and get around General Assembly approval.   

“It is our hope that when the facts are put before the board in a public hearing they will see what we clearly know to be true—there is no basis in law allowing what they propose to do,” said McCloud. “We will also point out numerous flaws in the proposed rules. A teacher’s license is their most valuable possession, allowing them a livelihood doing what they love to do. Having ambiguous, confusing, and contradictory rules on how a license can be suspended or revoked would be unacceptable for any profession. We certainly won’t allow it for the teaching profession.”

TEA has talked to members of the Government Operations committee about these proposed rules, and count most members on this committee as supportive of the teaching profession. Senate committee chair Mike Bell (R-Riceville) was the successful sponsor of 2013 TEA legislation overturning the board’s decision to revoke teacher licenses based on TVAAS scores. That legislation passed overwhelmingly, and was a clear rebuke of the board by the General Assembly. 

“The General Assembly takes its role seriously as the lawmaking body of our state. It grants powers to state agencies by passing laws, and when a bureaucracy tries to overstep the law I expect lawmakers to step in, and that’s the feedback we’ve gotten from committee members,” said Jim Wrye, TEA’s chief lobbyist. “After this latest rule issue, it is time we rethink the professional regulation of teaching.”

Wrye notes that most professions in Tennessee have standards boards made up mostly of practitioners of their professions. 

“Doctors have a medical board of doctors, accountants a board of accountants, and lawyers have the bar.  Yet teachers are regulated by an unaccountable appointed board with little or no teaching experience. In light of this latest misguided effort by the State Board of Education, we believe it is time to re-establish a strong professional standards board like they have in other states. It is time to take back our profession,” said Wrye.           

Now the focus will shift back to the July 29 meeting of the State Board of Education. Emergency rules can only go so far—sooner or later they will have to go before the General Assembly. 

“One thing the state board has not thought through is what happens when the courts overturn a license suspension by the state board. When a local school board suspends a teacher and it is overturned, the teacher is entitled to back-pay from the system. This occurs frequently with TEA representation. Now it will be the state board who will owe back pay, and they don’t have the funds,” said Wrye. 

Recently, the courts have financially hit the state board hard. In 2016, the board denied approval of the longstanding Bethel University educator preparation program, sending it into a tailspin. Earlier this month the courts overturned that decision and reinstated the program, and in the final judgment said all Bethel legal costs would be taxed to the State Board of Education, a potentially huge sum that is not in their budget and will have to be appropriated by the General Assembly.  

“Suspending teachers has not been the purview of the state board, that is and should be a local school board issue,” said McCloud. “It is wrong on the law, facts, and bad policy for the state board to start weighing in on discipline issues handled locally. These proposed rules invite misinterpretation and mistakes, and teachers will be treated unfairly. We will continue to fight this overreach.”                        
 

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