State Politics

Bill overhauls teacher tenure, pay

TALLAHASSEE — Channeling former Gov. Jeb Bush, leading Republican lawmakers filed legislation this week that would dramatically overhaul teacher tenure and pay, making it tougher for classroom teachers to achieve tenure, easier to get fired, and tying half of their pay formula to student test performance.

The legislator leading the charge, long-time Bush ally Sen. John Thrasher, concedes the proposal sets the stage for a fight with teachers and their unions similar to the opposition Bush faced with his plan to create the FCAT more than a decade ago.

“Remember the A+ Plan?” Thrasher said with a smile Tuesday. “Or when we created charter schools in 1994? This is probably the equivalent.”

The Senate bill essentially guts current protections for classroom teachers and establishes more stringent requirements for end-of-year exams and teacher evaluations. Starting in July 2010, all newly hired teachers in public and charter schools would be on probationary contracts for the first year, and on annual contracts after that. The sixth annual contract would be awarded only if teachers meet stiffer guidelines for evaluations and certifications.

“This isn’t to punish anybody,” said Thrasher, R-Orange Park. “It’s to make sure our classrooms have the best teachers possible.”

Some educators disagree.

“This is another attempt to try to legislate teacher quality and school quality without basing it on any sound research,” said Lynne Webb, president of the Pasco teacher’s union. “It’s very alarming they want to remove any sense of security that teachers have in their job.”

Other critics say it will discourage anyone from entering the teaching profession, and make teachers far less willing to work in inner city schools.

“This is just another attempt to destroy public schools,” said Miami Sen. Frederica Wilson, a former educator and outspoken Democrats. “We will see people flee the education profession like flies, and if we tie their pay to test scores, we will not see one person willing to teach in our inner cities.”

Many of the provisions mirror proposed reforms laid out in the Florida Department of Education’s recent application for federal Race to the Top money. But one proposal was a surprise: the Senate bill would require school districts that fail to comply with the new rules to levy an additional school tax; the state would withhold a matching amount of state general revenue dollars from that district as a penalty.

“There has to be a hammer to get this done,” said Thrasher. “I hope we’d never have to do it, but I think it’s there to get the attention of school districts.”

The Senate bill, filed Monday, is similar to legislation that stalled in the Senate last year but this time around, leaders have deemed the tenure overhaul a priority. And leading the push is Thrasher, the recently elected Republican Party of Florida chairman.

Rep. John Legg is sponsoring a similar version of the bill in the House, but it does not have the tax millage penalty.

Florida Education Association General Counsel Ron Meyer said moves to revamp teacher tenure would make it “impossible for any district to hire teachers” because it “drastically” and unfairly changes the way teachers are compensated and evaluated. He pointed out that teachers already are under probationary contracts for up to four years, and even teachers who graduate to longer contracts are evaluated each year under current law.

“Now, maybe those evaluations aren’t happening because administrators are busy with other things, but to any lawmaker I say this: If there is an incompetent teacher in a classroom, there is an incompetent administrator right behind.”

Florida saw a similar battle over teacher tenure more than a decade ago. In 1997, then Education Commissioner Frank Brogan tried to abolish it. But a bipartisan coalition ultimately approved what became known as “tenure light.” It streamlined and shortened the process for firing bad teachers. But it left obstacles for districts such as giving problem teachers 90 days to improve during the following school year.

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