State Politics

Fla. bill requires teacher merit pay or funding cuts

TALLAHASSEE — The sponsor calls it a “hammer.” The head of Florida’s statewide teachers union says it’s more like a “nuclear weapon.”

It’s a provision in a wide-ranging teacher quality bill penalizing school districts that fail to adopt merit pay plans by cutting part of their state funding and forcing them to make up for it by increasing local property taxes.

The bill (SB 6) sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, also would reduce teacher job protection and make it easier for school officials to fire teachers. The legislation has drawn union opposition.

Thrasher, who also chairs the Florida Republican Party, said Monday that his bill needs the penalty provision as an incentive for districts to adopt performance pay plans.

The bill says performance evaluations must be based at least half on how well a teacher’s students do on standardized tests rather than on longevity, advanced academic degrees or other factors. The evaluations determine which teachers get merit pay and who gets fired for being ineffective.

“There has to be a clear incentive to accomplish this,” Thrasher said. “Otherwise, we’re going to continue to not get it done.”

Merit pay is based on the premise that it attracts good teachers to the classroom and keeps them there,

Pat Barber, Manatee County Education Association president, is hoping the bill dies.

“I think it’s disgraceful,” she said Monday. “It will keep teachers from being willing to work in low-performing schools, because they’ll be afraid if their students don’t achieve that their salary will be cut. It’s very sad that Florida has the ability to fund public education but refuses to do so.”

Barber also said the move undermines collective bargaining and would take away local control from school boards.

Manatee County schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal agreed.

“Anything that takes away local control from our five elected school board members I don’t think is a good thing.

The Legislature doesn’t give us the ability to do away with tenure, they require it,” McGonegal said. “If they were going to do anything, we’d like them to enable the local school board to set the policy on tenure and the local voters will hold them accountable.”

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford also said the penalty clause goes too far.

“I actually don’t think it’s a hammer,” Ford said at a news conference. “It’s more like a nuclear weapon.”

The union says basing assessments on a single test fails to accurately identify the best teachers. It also says competing for merit pay undermines teamwork, and rewarding just a few teachers is unfair because most are doing good work and all are underpaid.

Various merit pay plans have been attempted in Florida over the past three decades, without much success.

Only eight of Florida’s 67 school districts participate in the current Merit Awards Program.

The Manatee County School District does not.

Just five local teachers union leaders support Florida’s application for about $1 billion in federal Race to the Top stimulus funding. The application features a pay plan similar to the one in Thrasher’s bill.

The penalty provision would cut state funding in an amount equal to 5 percent of what a district spends on salaries for teachers, principals and other school-based administrators. Districts also would have to raise property taxes an equal amount.

That would be a clear violation of the Florida Constitution, which gives school boards the authority to run local schools and determine taxing rates and a provision that guarantees employees the right to collectively bargain, said Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the teachers union. Meyer said several other parts of Thrasher’s bill have similar constitutional problems.

“They are basically neutering the school boards,” Meyer said. Many of the same objectives can be achieved with legislative guidance and collaboration between school boards and local unions, he said.

Thrasher said the bill, which will get its first committee hearing Wednesday, is just a starting point.

“If Andy and his guys have got a better idea how to do it, I’m certainly willing to listen to them,” Thrasher said.

Meyer said constitutional issues also may affect the Race to the Top application. Florida is one of 16 finalists in competition for those grants, which will be awarded in April.

Half of the money will go directly to school districts if they can reach agreements with their local teachers unions. If not, those districts would get no direct grant dollars. The other half of the grant would go to the state, which can distribute the money to all districts.

“Neither the Race to the Top nor this bill is broadly embracing the employee representatives as they should, but we are hopeful there will be some movement on that,” Meyer said.

Ford argued state law already allows school districts to suspend or fire ineffective teachers, even those that have completed probationary periods of three or four years. He predicted Thrasher’s bill would lead to dismissing even the best and most experienced teachers.

“You cannot measure what I teach,” said Shari Lynn Gewanter, a Tallahassee kindergarten teacher. “I’m scared. ... This bill gets rid of quality teachers.”

Thrasher, though, said his intent is for ineffective teachers to get remedial training or other help to improve.

“We’re going to try to work with teachers,” he said. “We’re just not going to summarily say they’re gone.”

— Herald reporter Natalie Neysa Alund contributed to this report.

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