State Politics

Emotions high over teacher pay, tenure bill

TALLAHASSEE — From street corners to cyberspace, a battle of words and images is raging over legislation that would link Florida teacher pay to student test scores and erode job security for new hires.

Teachers and their unions have been circulating petitions against the measure, making picket signs and holding rallies and demonstrations. They’ve flooded the Florida House with e-mails and so many calls that extra lines were put in and additional staffers assigned to answer the phones.

Both sides are using Web sites and social networking pages, lobbyists, polling, television commercials and press releases to express their views to lawmakers and the public.

Wayne D’Anunzio, who teaches gifted students at Bayonet Point Middle School about 30 miles north of St. Petersburg, even wrote and recorded a protest song that’s been posted on YouTube. His lyrics include the lines:

“Goodbye benefits, tenure and summer rest.

“We’ll base your job and pay on some silly test.”

The largely partisan debate is over a bill (SB 6) sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, who also chairs the Florida Republican Party.

It’s supported by GOP luminaries such as Gov. Charlie Crist and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has remained a force in education policy debates through his Foundation for Florida’s Future, and by business organizations including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

They argue the bill will improve Florida’s schools by attracting and retaining the best teachers through higher pay while weeding out the bad ones. Businesses have an interest in the schools, which are vital to protecting the state’s economic security in a global market, said chamber president and CEO Mark Wilson.

“In the future, being cheap and having a low cost of living is no longer going to be enough, and the next 30 years of our economy in Florida are going to be based on the talent that we’re going to be able to generate,” Wilson said.

Teachers say basing their pay and job security on test results, which can be influenced by factors such as students’ home life or health problems, is unfair, demoralizing and will drive even the best teachers from the classroom.

“We absolutely feel that, in Florida, no educator is appreciated and that our worth is very little, especially because everything in the bill is so negative,” said Sandy Traeger, a reading coach at Oviedo High School and former Florida PTA president.

The bill would require school districts to adopt merit pay plans that would be funded from a $900 million state appropriation starting in the 2011-12 school year. More than half of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on how much the teacher’s students improve their test scores in a year. The evaluations would be used to determine who receives pay raises and who doesn’t.

Teacher certification renewals also could be denied on the basis of poor evaluations.

Teachers now on the payroll could continue to get multiyear contracts, but anyone hired after July 1 would get only one-year contracts.

“How can you live, pay your bills, be a part of the economic society if you don’t know you will still have a job?” asked Traeger, who is not a union member.

Democratic President Barack Obama has spoken in favor of tying teacher pay to student test scores, but Florida Democrats have sided with the teachers unions against Thrasher’s bill. The measure still passed there 21-17 on March 24.

The focus has shifted to the Florida House, where the bill will get a final committee hearing Monday before a floor vote. The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, has urged its members to attend because many schools are on spring break.

The debate, meanwhile, has been escalating.

Opponents including children have waved picket signs on street corners with such messages as “Stop Thrasher the public school smasher” and “Protect Florida schools from bad politics.”

On the other side, a Chamber of Commerce TV spot gets tough with the teachers union.

It depicts a squad of burly men in dark suits and sunglasses marching into a school as an announcer says the union had gone into the classrooms and was “exploiting and bullying our kids” as part of its campaign “against rewarding our best teachers.”

“If students have called, they’ve done it basically on their own,” said union spokesman Mark Pudlow. “Individual teachers may have done that in isolated cases, but there’s nothing that’s come from the FEA or any of our local unions.”

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