State Politics

Sweeping education bill OK'd over teacher outcry

TALLAHASSEE — Angel-Marie Welsh has given the past 21 years to teaching. In her family of six siblings, five became teachers.

“Teaching,” she told a panel of state representatives Monday, “is in my blood.”

The Nova Middle School teacher drove from South Florida to Tallahassee so she could tell lawmakers about her experiences teaching at both a poor inner-city school with uninvolved parents and a high-achieving school that consistently earns an A.

“I was the same teacher there that I am where I am now,” she said.

Welsh, who has National Board Certification and is working on her master’s degree, joined dozens of public school teachers from around the state Monday to denounce a sweeping education measure being pushed forward in the Legislature. They wore buttons that read, “I teach, I vote,” and red shirts during a heated eight-hour public hearing at which not one teacher spoke in favor of the legislation.

But the passionate testimony did little to stop the controversial bill. The House Education Policy Council’s 12-5 vote Monday fell along party lines. The full House is expected to vote on the bill this week.

The bill represents the most dramatic proposed overhaul of Florida’s public schools in years, and has ignited a fierce battle between Republican lawmakers and traditional education interests across the state.

It would place all new teachers on annual contracts, link salary increases and professional certification for all teachers to student learning gains and require school districts to divert 5 percent of their funding back to the state to pay for the program.

Students would also be subject to more tests. The legislation would require school districts to establish and fund end-of-course exams for each subject area and grade level.

Opponents argue that the bill would further diminish local education dollars, creating new hurdles for school districts struggling to raise student achievement. They say it could also chase away dedicated teachers who would be unwilling to work in a state that does not provide stable job protections.

“We should not hold the teacher accountable for factors that are beyond his or her control,” said state Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the state Republican Party, pushed the bill through the Senate last month, and House Speaker Larry Cretul has spoken against all potential amendments because that would require another vote in the Senate, where the legislation narrowly passed, 21-17.

Proponents said the bill would make successful teachers wealthier and weed out ineffective educators, creating stronger public schools.

The bill’s sponsor in the House, Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said his high school daughter had been assigned “some real stinker of teachers” over the years because school districts cannot easily fire bad educators.

The bill would reform the termination process while rewarding teachers who truly help students learn, he said.

“The person we want to value most is the student,” he said.

House leaders also moved forward Monday with a bill that would establish standardized algebra, chemistry and biology tests for high school students. The new tests, which would replace the FCAT, are widely supported.

Gov. Charlie Crist has said he would sign both bills into law, but has shied away from campaigning against teacher tenure.

“These bills build on the education reforms that have earned Florida great improvements in academic rankings year after year,” he said in a prepared statement Monday.

Monday’s hearing, held in one of the Capital’s largest committee rooms, drew overflowing crowds. Almost eight hours were set aside for public comments and legislative debate.

“We have worked very hard to make sure that both sides will be heard today,” said Will Weatherford, chair of the council.