CLINTON — Education could be one of the key battlegrounds in Anderson County’s hotly contested race for Tennessee House of Representatives.
This week, Democratic candidate Jim Hackworth said teachers are unhappy with changes made during the past few years and are “tired of being treated like second-class citizens.
“They want someone who will listen to them and ask them what they think to improve education,” said Hackworth, a former four-term legislator who is trying to take back his old seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
During a campaign kickoff ceremony Monday, he was joined by DeWayne Emert, a Clinton High School English teacher, who said a Tennessee Education Association organization had unanimously endorsed Hackworth over the incumbent, Republican John Ragan.
“We have to vote for candidates that are going to stand up for education,” said Emert, a member of the TEA Fund for Children and Public Education Executive Council. He said the local organization is bipartisan.
The Ragan campaign didn’t express surprise at the reported TEA endorsement.
“The TEA typically does back Democrats,” said campaign aide Holt Whitt, a Republican Caucus field staff member.
TEA spokesman Alex Smirnov confirmed that local teachers in Anderson County have recommended that Hackworth be endorsed in District 33, which includes the county south and west of Interstate 75.
But he said the TEA FCPE has yet to consider the local recommendation or concur. That could happen in the next few weeks, Smirnov said.
The Ragan campaign said Republicans were getting blamed, at least in part, for a new evaluation system that was approved while Hackworth and former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen were still in office. Hackworth voted for the evaluation system guidelines during a special session in 2009, Whitt said.
It would be hypocritical for the TEA to endorse Hackworth based on concerns over that system, Ragan said.
A first-term legislator from Oak Ridge, Ragan said some resistance to the new system was to be expected. Before the most recent reforms, teachers could receive tenure after three years and then be evaluated once every five years, he said.
Ragan said he did not know of any similar profession where workers were evaluated that infrequently.
He said legislators have listened to educators’ concerns, and some changes are likely, although the evaluations will still probably be more frequent than they were in the past.
Emert said the new system requires four evaluations per year for tenured teachers and six evaluations per year for non-tenured ones. That’s up from one per year under the old system, Emert said.
He said tenure is also an issue for teachers. They used to be eligible for tenure after three years, but they now have to wait five. And, if they drop below a four on the five-point evaluation evaluation system for two years, they could lose tenure, he said.
“That’s really hard on a new teacher,” said Emert, an Anderson County teacher of the year at the high school level.
A substitute teacher, Ragan said the state’s low-ranking education system had to be changed, although there are some bright spots, including the Oak Ridge school system.
“We must do something,” he said.
He said the TEA has been a major force in Tennessee since the 1960s, and the organization is objecting to what is in place now.
Republicans and Democrats agree that the race between Ragan and Hackworth is one of a half-dozen key contests in the Nov. 6 election.