Tennessee Education Association

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TEA lawsuit challenges state board overreach on licensure rule

Association continues to fight inappropriate state board licensure rules

TEA has filed a lawsuit against the State board of Education on behalf of a member as it continues to object to the board’s proposed massive overreach in teacher licensure rules, expanding the board’s power to overrule local boards and suspend or dismiss teachers. 

The lawsuit asserts the state board has no statutory authority to create a rule to revoke or suspend a teacher’s license for misconduct. 

Earlier this year, TEA objected to changes to the State board rule that allows the board to suspend, deny, or revoke educator licenses for alleged misconduct.  Those objections served to temporarily halt an attempt by the board to quickly pass them in a key legislative committee.

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 saw the proposed rules as a power grab and a threat to the teaching profession in Tennessee, and acted quickly to halt the board’s actions that aren’t supported by law.

Throughout the year, TEA has been in communication with the state board’s general counsel, pointing out TEA’s concerns with the proposed changes. 

“We have been trying to point out to the board that what they are proposing has serious flaws and that under Tennessee law the board currently does not have the power to enact and enforce these rules,” said Steve McCloud, TEA assistant executive director for legal services.

TEA continues to insist that 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. 

“The October lawsuit on behalf of a TEA member has this crucial issue at stake,” McCloud said. “It points out that the current law authorizes the board to adopt policies, but it does not confer upon the board the power or authority to promulgate rules governing revocation of licenses for misconduct. 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 lawsuit points out the difference between policies and rules, further pressing the case that the board has no authority to administratively revoke, suspend a teacher’s license or formally reprimand a teacher. 

During the summer, the state board tried to circumvent the law on passing rules by labeling them “emergency” and stating that students’ safety is at stake, but TEA quickly pointed out the idea that students were at risk under current rules is a sham.  

The state board staff had pushed for a vote on its 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 TEA objected and petitioned for a public hearing on the issue. As a result, the board withdrew its proposed rules from the committee.

“TEA remains willing to work with the board to move forward in assuring that the health safety and welfare of Tennessee’s school children are protected,” wrote TEA Executive Director Carolyn Crowder in a letter to the board.

TEA has talked to members of the Government Operations committee about these proposed rules, and counts 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,” Wrye said. 

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