Merit pay bill concerns parents, Florida educators

ataylor@bradenton.comMarch 17, 2011 

MANATEE -- Public outcry from Manatee County residents was heard from Bradenton to Tallahassee over the bill that focuses on merit-based pay for teachers. And it came from both those in support and those against the education bill, using the same two critical words:

Unfunded mandates.

But none of that stopped the education bill from being the first bill for the Senate and House to send to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.

After more than three hours of debate Wednesday, the Florida House signed off on Senate Bill 736, which would drastically reform the way public school teachers are paid, evaluated and hired.

The final vote was along party lines, with 80 Republicans favoring the bill and 39 Democrats opposing it.

Manatee Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal was in Tallahassee on Wednesday meeting with colleagues from other districts. He is in support of performance-based pay but noted emphatically, “It’s going to take money.”

“There’s no money to come with it,” McGonegal said of the bill, which is one of Scott’s top priorities.

Without money to fund merit-based pay, McGonegal predicts problems.

“It’s going to be frustrating for teachers, parents and administrators,” he said.

Christine Sket of Manatee County’s Fund Education Now is a strong opponent of the education bill. She started a letter-writing campaign because she said legislators are not listening to the needs of the people.

“The bill is a bad check written on an account with no money it,” she said. “If it passes, it puts our kids between the teacher’s paychecks.”

Sket hopes the letters will send a message to lawmakers and Gov. Scott.

“I think the biggest message is that there is no funding and it’s filled with unfunded mandates,” she said.

Sket wasn’t surprised that the education bill passed the Senate and the House.

“Really, it’s going to come down to the governor, and we know what he’s going to do,” she said. “When he signs off, that goes against the doctrine he was elected under.”

Last year, then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that was similar to the current education bill. On Wednesday, Democratic Caucus members voiced strong opposition to the current bill, calling it “Son of 6” in reference to last year’s bill number.

Sket estimates the bill would bring with it a $2 billion price tag after its 2014 implementation. Each student will have to be tested. And the bill doesn’t specify how students will demonstrate improvements.

It’s likely students will be tested by courses, said Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association.

“This is very reckless legislation,” Barber said. “I think it’s important to understand this bill will require more high-stakes testing of students to have a measure of student achievement for teachers’ pay. These tests don’t exist.”

What also doesn’t exist is the research to support that merit pay increases student achievement, Barber added.

Barber’s parent organization, the Florida Education Association, voiced loud opposition Wednesday.

“Despite the mantra about local control and less government we hear from lawmakers, this bill reduces a school district’s flexibility and authority over teacher evaluations, pay schedules and working conditions,” FEA President Andy Ford said in a news release. “This bill gives new power and authority to the Florida Department of Education and the Legislature. It’s not good for students, it’s not good for teachers and it’s not grounded in sound research. Governor Scott should veto this bill and tell lawmakers to start over and get it right.”

The bill was sponsored by state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville -- a former teacher. Wise has said he is “for teachers getting paid as much as they possibly can. Because they really work hard.”

“I want to have good teachers who are exceptional and are highly qualified,” Wise has said. “I think we need an evaluation system that sorts out the teachers who are effective and highly effective so that we can reward them for good behavior.”

Angeline Taylor, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7095.

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