State Politics

2010 FLORIDA LEGISLATURE: Controversial teacher bill gets through Senate

TALLAHASSEE — The governor who brags about coming from a family of educators said he’s ready to sign a bill bashed as a union-busting assault on public school teachers.

The so-called “teacher tenure” bill, which makes it easier to fire teachers and ties pay increases to student test scores, is so controversial it narrowly passed the Senate on Wednesday in a 21-17 vote.

“This is a bill that really focuses on trying to help children and encouraging better teachers,” Gov. Charlie Crist said hours after the Senate took what Republican lawmakers called a historic vote for education reform. “It pays better teachers more, and that just seems like the right thing to do to me.”

The tenure legislation was one of three education measures passed by the Senate in a conservative push to transform public schools. Under the package of legislation, students could face tougher graduation requirements, more money could be directed toward private schools, and a slew of teacher benefits could be eliminated.

“Education is neither Democrat or Republican,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. “All senators care and work hard every day to make Florida’s public schools the best.”

“We are raising standards in order to assure our future by making our kids more competitive with the world,” she added.

Crist has said he would sign each bill.

That’s a big blow to the state’s main teacher union, the Florida Education Association, whose bargaining power and clout in the Capitol hangs in the balance. The union once counted Crist as a reliable political ally, one who used to try to boost teacher pay and who often reminds audiences that two of his sisters are educators.

But now Crist is in the political fight of his life in a partisan Republican primary in which unions hold little sway.

“Bashing teachers is good for certain conservative members,” said Andy Ford, the union’s president, who bemoaned that there’s “no collaboration. There is no cooperation’’ from Republican leaders.

“They are going to do what’s in their best political interest and not what’s best for students,” he said.

But Republican senators said the union is only interested in protecting itself, not helping teachers. They faulted the FEA for telling teachers the tenure bill would slash salaries in half.

“Stop lying to teachers,” Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, who is sponsoring the bill that expands the state’s voucher program. “There is no cut to any teacher’s salary in the bill.”

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, an influential former House speaker who was elected chairman of the Florida Republican Party last month, said drastic changes are needed to transform failing public schools and prepare students for the global economy.

“It’s about our children and the future of our children and what is best for our children,” said Thrasher, a former House speaker and longtime ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“I think this is Jeb’s best legislative session,” said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who decried the tenure change on the Senate floor during debate.

Thrasher smiled when told of Gelber’s quote. “I think 1999 was Jeb’s best session,” Thrasher said. “This isn’t a bad one for him.”

Bush remained silent on the tenure issue Wednesday, but released a statement in support of the new proposed graduation requirements: “By aligning the requirements for a high school diploma with the needs of emerging industries, Florida is creating a business climate that will attract investment and the high wage jobs that come with it.”

No Democrats voted in support of the measure.

Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland joined three other Republicans in voting against the tenure bill. A candidate for governor, she said the legislation “disrespects all Florida teachers.”

“The idea that teachers are solely responsible for a child’s performance goes against everything we know about what makes children successful,” Dockery said in a prepared statement.

The vote will likely be equally partisan in the House, where speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said Crist’s blessing and the Senate’s early focus on education have removed any hurdles that might have prevented the measures from becoming law this year.

Even so, union officials haven’t surrendered. Shortly after the Senate vote, a missile went out directing opponents to send their complaints to House members.

Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican in charge of vote counting conservatives in the House, said students from Miami-Dade County soon began phoning his office.

Teachers at Countryside High in Clearwater were shocked to learn the Senate had passed the bill, said Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black.

“It was like telling someone a tragic accident had happened,” she said.

On Thursday the Senate will take up the question of whether to allow voters to consider easing requirements in the state’s 2002 constitutional amendment that required smaller class sizes (SJR 2). If approved by three-fifths of the Legislature and 60 percent of the voters, size caps would be based on school averages rather than classroom counts.

Two other education measures, all opposed to varying degrees by the union, were approved Wednesday:

n High school students would eventually have to pass end of year courses in geometry, algebra, biology and chemistry, which would replace the FCAT (SB4).

n The maximum amount of money available for the state’s tax scholarship program, where corporations are allowed to receive a tax credit if they make a donation to an approved voucher school, would grow from $118 million to $140 million (SB 2126).

Roughly 5,000 voucher supporters crammed the Capitol courtyard, including more than 900 from Miami-Dade and about 400 from the Tampa Bay area in matching light blue shirts that read, “Leveling the Playing Field.”

Crist addressed the cheering crowd.

“Your future is priceless and Florida understands that,” he said. “And that’s why we’re working to make sure your choice is heard.”