How would you feel if your teaching license was suspended for a year, and your career destroyed, because you arrived 30 minutes late to one of your high school classes? Is that worth a career? It’s a recent example of licensure action taken by the State Board of Education (SBE), and this teacher’s career was saved because the educator was a TEA member.
TEA lawyers pushed back, and the year-long suspension was dropped.
The SBE has increased license suspensions, often for what classroom teachers would see as inadvertent or minor mistakes, and worked to establish licensure rules. Heavens help non-member teachers who get a license suspension letter from the state without the expert representation of their association.
Using a recent state report on teacher sexual misconduct, the SBE has been pushing bills that substantially increase its ability to set rules and expand infractions that jeopardize educators’ careers. Couching the rules as dealing with sexual misconduct, they were approved by the Joint Government Operations Committee on February 25. TEA testified against the rules, as it has done for the past year.
“Revocation and prosecution is the only response to sexual misconduct of a teacher. The state board of education already had the power to revoke licenses for these heinous actions and other crimes,” said Jim Wrye during the rule hearing. “Yet the vast majority of these rules deal with suspensions and reprimands, so this clearly is not about sexual misconduct. The state wants to override local discipline decisions. With these rules, you will have a small staff in Nashville with little or no experience working in schools, deciding what is career-ending, or damaging, and what is not.”
TEA has a pending lawsuit contending the board does not have the power to suspend and reprimand teacher licenses, and regardless of the legislative session, the legal team has confidence in the suit.
The state board is pushing HB2009/SB2011, a bill requiring directors of schools report teacher felony convictions. But at its end the bill changes law dealing with license revocation, changing it to “discipline of licensed personnel for misconduct by formal reprimand, or by suspension or revocation.” The bill flew through the Senate, but has been held in a House subcommittee with concerns over due process and appeals.
“These are teachers’ careers we are talking about, their livelihood and profession, and there need to be safeguards and due process in whatever we pass,” said Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville).
Brooks is bringing a due process amendment that includes an expedited appeals process to protect the rights of teachers.
The other state board bill is a rewrite of the Teacher Code of Ethics, a code developed by TEA and made state law years ago. The rewrite adds many new provisions, including needed definitions of prohibited sexual behavior that were recommended by the state report on teacher sexual misconduct.
However, most of the new standards are about teaching practice and conduct that have nothing to do with student safety, such as “not knowingly make a false or malicious statement about a student or colleague,” or to “administer state-mandated assessments fairly and ethically.”
The problem with these vague provisions is that under the new board rules, violations of the Code of Ethics can lead to licensure action.
The bill makes it is a responsibility of every teacher to report every violation of any part of the code to the director, local board, or to the state board itself. Failure to do so is also an ethics code violation.
“The code has been an important way to guide and enforce standards of practice at the local level for many years,” Wrye said. “Parts of this code rewrite are a bit absurd for anyone who teaches. But now it could be used by the state board to damage and end careers. It moves from absurd to ominous.”
TEA is working to make some common-sense changes to the code bill that would strengthen child safety, while not becoming punitive when dealing with judgments and actions of everyday teaching practice.
“This is a fight for teaching as a profession,” said Wrye. “Every educator needs to be part of our professional association to defend teaching as a profession, and now it seems to defend our licenses as well.”