EDUCATION
05/26/2011 03:18 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2012

Alabama House Passes Bill That Maintains Teacher Tenure But Dilutes Its Protections

CORRECTION APPENDED

NEW YORK -- On Wednesday evening, Alabama became the latest state to pass a law that makes it easier to fire teachers.

The Alabama House of Representatives voted to pass the Students First Act, which does not do away entirely with teacher tenure but does streamline the teacher dismissal process. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signed the bill on Thursday.

"Tonight's vote is a victory for the students, teachers and taxpayers of Alabama," House Speaker Mike Hubbard said, according to ABC News. "There's no question that the quality of our teachers is at the highest level it has ever been. Now, Alabama is one step closer to having a tenure law that is as professional as our teachers."

The bill keeps both tenure and the timeline for achieving it in place for teachers but eliminates the lengthy federal arbitration process for firing tenured teachers. Under the new law, teachers would be unable to appeal layoffs. School districts and community colleges would be empowered to terminate teachers "at any time" and for various reasons, such as a reduction in the number of positions available, incompetency, and "immorality."

Language about firing teachers based on student achievement was removed from an earlier version of the bill.

While the Alabama bill does make it easier to fire teachers, it doesn't go as far as other bills passed around the country that tie performance to hiring and firing. States ranging from Illinois to Florida have now passed laws linking teacher evaluations and pay to their students' test scores. Last week, the New York state Board of Regents voted to allow districts to use state standardized test scores to measure up to 40 percent of teacher evaluations under a new rubric.

Jonah Edelman founded Stand for Children, a lobbying organization with roots 11 states that most recently helped push the education bill through congress in Illinois. While Stand for Children had no hand in the Alabama bill, Edelman lauded its premise.

"The Students First Act is in line with a promising national trend of treating teachers like professionals by making performance a key factor in decisions related to their employment," he told The Huffington Post. "That said, it's much less sweeping than bills we've championed ... in that it doesn't appear to tie the granting of tenure to demonstrated effectiveness and doesn't appear to require that performance be a primary factor in layoff decisions." He added that the bill lacks important details about the appeals process and standards for calculating student achievement.

Bradley Byrne, a former state senator who introduced the bill in 2005 and now runs the Alabama Reform Foundation, described the current version of the bill as "modest" in a phone interview with The Huffington Post.

Byrne said after he introduced the bill, it faced tremendous pushback from the Alabama Education Association, the state teachers union. The recent Republican electoral sweep into the state legislature enabled it to pass, he said. Lawmakers defeated several Democratic amendments to the bill.

Byrne said Alabama's teacher disciplinary process, which is conducted by federal arbitrators, made his job more difficult when he served as chancellor of the state's two-year college system. "Alabama has one of the most difficult tenure laws in the country that in essence makes it virtually impossible to displace an education employee even if it's for cause," he said. He pointed to cases in which he couldn't fire a teacher who had sex with a student or a professor who was found to have fabricated his credentials.

AEA members are flooding the governor's office with phone calls, said Sally Howell, executive director of the Alabama Association of School Boards.

"Every student has a right to a quality teacher in a classroom," Howell said. "This bill will enable school leaders to ensure that happens in every classroom. The current law is broken, and it needed to be fixed."

Phone calls placed to the AEA were not immediately returned.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article relied on a premature version of the bill that contained language related to firing teachers based on student achievement. The new law streamlines the teacher dismissal process but does not tie firing to student achievement.