State Politics

Controversial education bill nears passage

TALLAHASSEE — In a session that followed hours — and days, and weeks — of rancorous debate, House lawmakers were poised late Thursday to pass a bill that would overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, paid and fired in Florida.

The bill’s next stop: the desk of Governor Charlie Crist. And what he does with it is anyone’s guess.

“There are things about it that I like and things about it that give me some concern,” he said. “I just want to weigh it out and continue to listen.”

That’s a long way from his initial strong support of the bill, leaving opponents of the proposed law optimistic.

“Gov. Crist holds the power to do what’s right for students and teachers of Florida,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karen Arononwitz. “When he vetoes this bill, he stands up not only for the well being of teachers, but for the stability of local communities.”

Hailed as a way to reward the state’s best teachers, the bill would base half a teacher’s evaluation on students’ test performance. Instead of the current system, which rewards teachers based on years of experience, advanced degrees and extra certification, proponents say newer teachers could make more money earlier in their careers if their students are successful.

But opponents — teachers, unions, Democrats, some Republicans and others — say the bill would tear away job security, discourage new teachers from working in Florida and prompt existing educators to leave.

New teachers would be placed on annual contracts that would not be automatically renewed. Teachers who are already working would not be guaranteed extra pay for future advanced degrees; the program that awards bonuses for National Board Certification would be eliminated for teachers who aren’t certified by 2010.

“This bill is totally unnecessary,” said state Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie. “Also, this bill is just bad.”

He added: “What good public policy mandates is that this terrible bill dies a very quick death.”

Reaction in Manatee

Manatee County School Distinct teachers and leaders expressed disappointment in the bill’s pending passage.

“I understand there are teachers who have taught for 30 years and are horrible and they want them out, but this is hard for people like me,” said Jackie Vixamar, who teaches special needs students at Gullett Elementary.

“You have your perfect classes, but you have situations like mine where my kids aren’t going to test out and perform well no matter, so it’s not fair,” she said. “I’m disappointed.”

School board member Bob Gause called the lawmakers’ move a blunder, but said district leaders will deal with it the best they can.

“I think legislators are making a mistake by focusing on individual teachers instead of unit performance in the form of how the school is doing,” Gause said. “To say we’re going to have specific types of evaluations for specific individuals misses the point.”

Johnson Middle School Physical Education teacher Lorie Starkweather said she and other teachers are worried schools will no longer be able to offer electives, including art.

“The state mandated we have physical education, so we can’t cut that, so what does that leave us?” she said. “It’s a shame, the art programs are so important for students in educating the whole child.”

School board member Walter Miller called the move a teacher morale killer.

“In an age when we’re trying to do our best in these economic times for them, this makes it even more of a struggle,” he said. “I think we need a better evaluation system. We have needed one to get rid of teachers who are questionable, but it should be done corroboratively.

“I think the Legislature is out to kill public education. They’re sending that message.”

— Natalie Neysa Alund, Herald education reporter, contributed to this report.