Florida Ready to Pass Big Changes to Teacher Tenure, Performance Pay

Judi Mulligan
Judi Mulligan is a fourth grade teacher at Sand Pine Elementary. She says she's worried about the bill's affect on teacher morale.
WESLEY CHAPEL (4-8-2010) -

The Florida Legislature is on the verge of passing some of the most sweeping education changes in the nation. But questions remain about whether Gov. Charlie Crist will sign the bill.

It would phase out teacher tenure and pay based on experience, and replace it with a system based on student progress on standardized tests and evaluations from principals and peers.

Florida’s GOP lawmakers say they’ve been inspired by President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program. But the proposal has teachers picking up protest signs.

Earlier this month at Sand Pine Elementary in Pasco County, about 30 teachers lined up in front of the school. They were all wearing red, holding protest signs, and passing out flyers saying “Stop Senate Bill 6.”

Fourth Grade teacher Judi Mulligan calls it just another sign that lawmakers don’t respect teachers.

“To look at what legislators are saying, it’s kind of like a kick in the stomach to everybody,” she said. “It makes us feel like we’re not worthwhile, or important.”

But the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. John Thrasher, says he does respect teachers. During the debate on the Senate floor, he pointed out his daughter in the gallery, a former teacher.

“She’s told me she’s not fearful of this bill. Because she thinks that when this bill passes, it’s gonna inspire teachers to get into the classroom, and do a better job than they’ve been doing, even now,” Thrasher said.

If the bill is signed into law, there would be no more tenure for new teachers – they’d be hired on one-year contracts.

There would be a lot more testing of students. Teacher raises would depend on student progress on standardized tests between the beginning and end of the year.

Half of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on those test scores – and if students don’t show learning gains for four of five years, the teacher could lose his or her certification.

Florida has long been at the forefront of education reform, but even experts like Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality are surprised.

“What Florida is considering is really very big, and very bold,” she said. “And while other states have passed related pieces, what Florida is proposing would really be very unprecedented.”

Jacobs’ group supports tying pay to student performance. She points to studies which show students excel when they have high-quality teachers – especially low-income and minority students.

Teachers in Florida say they’re not opposed to these ideas. In Hillsborough County, teachers and administrators proposed a milder version and won a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But politics have gotten in the way. Senator Thrasher is a close ally of former GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, and both have a long history of clashing with teacher unions.

Outside Florida, these ideas are gaining bi-partisan support. President Obama’s “Race to the Top” program ties teacher performance to student gains on tests.

Florida WAS heavily favored to win a Race to the Top grant. But it lost out in the first round to Tennessee and Delaware. Those states had the support of teacher unions. Florida largely did not.

Now the bill goes to Republican Gov. Charlie Crist – who’s in a tough primary for the U.S. Senate.

At one point, Crist said he supports the bill. Now, he’s expressing reservations.

“I had a conversation with a friend of many years this weekend who has a significantly handicapped child and was concerned about provisions of the bill that require progress.,” Crist told reporters.

“And he’s like, how can my son have progress -- it’s very challenging. So it’s weighing on me heavily.”

How to deal with special needs students is just one question the bill leaves unanswered. How to test progress in courses like band, what to do about chronically absentee students – even what exactly a “learning gain” is – would all be hashed out in rules written later by the Florida Department of Education.

But despite the talk of educational Armageddon, Thrasher and Mulligan agree on one thing – teachers will adjust.

“The people that are here, we will end up as teachers doing what we’re told to do. So we will make it work,” she said.

“But it would be nice to make it work in a positive atmosphere where you felt needed and loved, even,” Mulligan added.

Crist says he plans to sign the bill or veto it in the next several days. His political hopes, and the direction of education in Florida, hang in the balance.

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