State Politics

Florida lawmakers approve teacher tenure bill

The outcome was clear going in, but lawmakers in the state House of Representatives still debated a controversial teacher pay bill until nearly 2:30 a.m. Friday.

After more than nine hours, they voted.

Ultimately, the vote was 64 for and 55 against the measure, which would overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, compensated and fired in Florida.

Eleven Republicans joined Democrats in voting no.

The bill's next stop: the desk of Gov. 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,'' the governor said Thursday. ``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 Aronowitz. ``When he vetoes this bill, he stands up not only for the well being of teachers, but for the stability of local communities.''

The measure passed the Senate last month in a 21-17 vote. Republican leaders pushed the bill through the House with no amendments to send it straight to Crist. Although legislators debated the pros and cons of the bill into the wee hours of Friday morning, the only question about the outcome was what time everyone would go home. Enough Republican votes were locked by the time discussion started at 5 p.m. to easily pass the bill.

Hailed as a way to reward the state's best teachers, the proposed law 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.

``What is unacceptable is the status quo -- telling a beginning teacher that no matter what you do in the classroom, there's nothing you can do to increase your pay,'' said Rep. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican.

She voted in favor of the bill.

But opponents -- many teachers, unions, Democrats and some Republicans -- say the bill would abolish job security, discourage new teachers from working in Florida and prompt existing educators to leave.

Said Broward Teachers Union President Pat Santeramo: ``This is a very dark day for education and teachers in general.''

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.''

Thousands of educators, parents and students around the state have picketed, e-mailed, called and traveled to Tallahassee to vent their ire.

Thursday, as House members debated the bill, hundreds of Broward teachers marched in protest in Tamarac. At Coral Park High in West Miami-Dade, 1,000 students walked out in opposition to the bill.

While many opponents agreed the measure has some good qualities, most complained about how quickly it had been steered through the Legislature.

``I don't think myself or anyone in this chamber is against the concept of better teachers,'' said Miami Rep. Julio Robaina, a Republican. ``But you know what I want to do? I want to get it right. I want to make sure that we take the time to get it right.''

He voted against the bill.

As the bill progressed, school district officials fretted about the additional costs they expected to have to bear. School districts would be required to divert 5 percent of their funding back to the state to pay for the program.

``In terms of budget, certainly it's simply another nail in the coffin for public education,'' said Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter.

He estimated it would add more than $100 million in costs, largely to develop new tests that would be used to measure student growth.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho estimated the proposed legislation would cost the Miami-Dade district about $155 million.

On Thursday, Carvalho raised additional concerns -- including that the law would not guarantee compensation for teachers who complete advanced degrees. The portion of their evaluation not based on student test scores could include credit for degrees.

``It was their work and we ought to reward them,'' he said. ``I will do everything in my power. . . to protect the effort and the sacrifice that they put forth in obtaining higher degrees.''

Though the Miami-Dade School Board did not take an official position on the bill, board Chairman Solomon Stinson said he hoped Crist would veto it.

Carvalho has advocated for negotiating pay-for-performance measures on the local level.

Notter said the measure makes recruiting teachers -- especially for hard-to-fill areas in science and special education -- even harder.

``It literally wipes out of our vocabulary the words retention and recruitment,'' he said. New teachers, Notter predicted, will ``have Florida at the bottom of their list.''

Brenda Samayoa, 22, has been training to be a teacher since ninth grade, when she entered a program that prepares high school students for a future in education. Now a senior at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, she said she sees good and bad points in the bill -- but still plans to teach in Florida.

She also wants to pursue advanced degrees and National Board Certification, even if she won't be promised any bonuses for that.

``I really don't think that teaching is a money job,'' she said.

One thing worries her a lot: the lack of job security.

``It's a scary thought,'' she said.

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