Virginia Senate Postpones Tenure Reform

Published March 12, 2012

The Virginia Senate voted 23-17 to postpone until next year a bill to replace unlimited public school teacher tenure with three-year contracts, one of Gov. Bob McDonnell’s priorities for the 2012 session.

“Today’s vote is a delay; it is not a defeat,” McDonnell (R) said in a statement. “Increased accountability in our public education system and in government in general is an idea whose time has come.”

The measure, introduced by Del. Richard Bell (R-Staunton), passed the Virginia House of Delegates in mid-February. All 20 Senate Democrats voted against its companion Senate bill, then three Republicans in the evenly split chamber voted with them when the House bill moved to the Senate.

‘Shrill, Vehement Opposition’
“The Virginia Education Association mounted a shrill and vehement opposition to the governor’s proposal, and the voting went almost entirely along party lines,” said Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute. “The same legislature approved a major school reform victory with tuition tax credits.”


Virginia teachers currently receive tenure after three years of probation. The proposal would extend that probationary period to five years, after which teachers could sign a three-year contract with no option for permanent tenure. 

“It’s also important to ensure teachers, like employees in any job, receive regular feedback on their performance,” said Christian Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute in Virginia. 

Tools for Administrators
State Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), who introduced the Senate legislation, said the proposal was designed to benefit both children and teachers.

“In every other job, those who perform well are rewarded, and there are consequences for underperforming,” he said. “When it comes to educating our children, we shouldn’t accept a lower standard. Teachers who receive ‘unacceptable’ evaluations shouldn’t remain in the classroom. It’s not fair to our kids, and it’s not fair to other teachers who have to pick up the slack.”

Obenshain opposed the motion to postpone the bill.

“If your children have a bad teacher two years in a row, they will never recover,” he said on the Senate floor. “This is about giving school administrators the tools necessary to do the job.”

Rethinking the Rules
The proposal would have also required annual teacher evaluations, tied 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to student performance on standardized tests, and removed last in, first out requirements.

Current policy, Braunlich said, “doesn’t serve students well, and it certainly doesn’t inspire teacher excellence. Ensuring that teacher performance is a factor in determining reductions in force is a vital part of establishing a high quality and permanent instructional workforce.”

Soifer says additional reforms could make teacher accountability more politically palatable in the next session.

“It seems likely that if Virginia can improve its school accountability system to better include minority achievement gaps and student growth,” he said, “more lawmakers will have the confidence to pass a plan like this down the road.”

Image by Bob McDonnell’s office