CHEYENNE -- After a lively debate, the Wyoming Senate on Tuesday killed a bill on third reading that would have repealed teacher tenure.
While Senate File 52 was defeated by a 28-12 vote, the Senate went on to advance two education and teacher accountability bills.
Senate File 70, education accountability, and Senate File 146, teacher accountability, will come up for third and final Senate votes today.
Supporters of repealing teacher tenure, or continuing-contract status, argued that it is too difficult now to get rid of ineffective teachers who may be partly to blame for subpar student performance scores in a K-12 system that costs the state $1.5 billion per year and pays teachers an average of nearly $59,000 per year.
Opponents said repealing the protection for teachers would discourage students from entering the profession. They also said the move would mean teachers would avoid innovation or doing anything creative that could jeopardize their jobs.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, the bill's sponsor, said opponents of the bill have been hearing from one side while he believes that 79 to 80 percent of people in the state support getting rid of tenure.
One opponent of the bill, Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, said it would not have improved the quality of teachers or education.
If the legislators are serious about modifying teacher contracts, they should order an appropriation and pay each teacher $3,000 to become an "at-will" employee, he said.
Nicholas questioned whether the University of Wyoming's College of Education was rigorous enough. He noted that UW students who major in education have some of the lowest ACT scores on campus but graduate from the College of Education with the highest grade-point averages.
This either means the College of Education is turning students into "geniuses" or there is a "lack of rigor" in the department, Nicholas said.
Majority Floor Leader Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, argued that the Legislature could be exposing itself to a rash of lawsuits if it were to remove the teacher tenure protection. He said the action could be construed by the courts as taking a property right without due process.
Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, said he worked without tenure as an economist for a large company, got along with other employees and did not fear upper management.
"It really does work out there in the real world," Case said.
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, said the senators who opposed the bill were arguing for the status quo, but the status quo was not helping the school children.
Sen. John Hastert, D-Green River, said the bill would "stifle teachers."
The state, he said, already has a system to get rid of bad teachers.
"This bill is just punitive," said Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee.
"The debate should be about quality teaching," Schiffer said. "This bill is about trying to hammer somebody."
Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said the bill had the effect of giving more power to principals and administrators -- a group that also had "bad applies" and was no less accountable for student performance than teachers.
Coe succeeded in delaying the effective date of the bill until July1, 2012. During the interval, he said, work could begin setting up the proposed new accountability programs and clearing up any problems with the tenure repeal bill.
But efforts to save the bill failed.
After the vote, Kathryn Valido, president of the Wyoming Education Association, said the debate was thoughtful "and the senators made a good decision."
"They have options on the floor that offer great accountability and they decided this wasn't the best option," she said after the vote.
The senators, she said, looked at all the unintended consequences of the bill, not just the potential for litigation.
Her organization, she said, likes Senate File 46, the Teacher Accountability Act, because it clearly defines how accountability is measured.
"And that is with good teacher evaluation," Valido said. "That's what we always said we wanted -- good, strong teacher evaluation."
She said the current system of terminating poor teachers has been been in place for 53 years and is effective.
The WEA has been on record of supporting Senate File 70, the Education Accountability Act, from the start, she said.