State Politics

Teacher tenure bill’s fate in Crist’s hands

TALLAHASSEE — A hot-potato bill eliminating teacher tenure and tying pay to student test scores landed in Gov. Charlie Crist’s hands Friday, tossed by legislators who debated it early into the morning.

Now, the waiting — and wheedling — begins.

Crist, who has until next Friday to sign or veto the bill, said he expects to take his time with the decision.

“I think it’s too important to do anything hasty,” he said. “So I want to take as much input as I can and review it, get fully briefed on it again.”

The proposed law, which passed the House of Representatives 64-55 and the Senate 21-17, would base half a teacher’s evaluation on progress that students make on tests, most of which have not yet been developed.

If the students improve, educators could earn more money.

The current system rewards teachers based on years of experience, advanced degrees and extra certification.

New teachers would be hired on annual contracts that would not automatically be reviewed, which would wipe out tenure for new hires. Opponents say the effect will be to discourage new educators from coming to Florida.

As Crist studies up on the bill, he said he also intends to listen. And opponents of the bill are planning to give him an earful over the next several days.

South Florida teachers unions are mobilizing members, parents and others to flood Crist’s office with calls and e-mails. Just since Thursday afternoon, more than 9,000 e-mails had poured in — with many more expected to follow.

Crist has received more than 10,000 calls opposing the bill and at least 71 in support. Since the beginning of March, he had received more than 15,000 e-mails opposing the measure and at least 66 supporting.

State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, said of the bill, “In its present form, it’s unworkable, and would have unintended consequences. Last night, on the floor (of the House) I referred to it as a ‘Frankenstein monster,’ and what I meant is they have taken parts that may be good, and have stitched them together in a way that creates a grotesque product.”

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, was equally disappointed.

“My mother was a teacher for 30 years. I’m very disappointed,” he said. “I believe there was not significant involvement or inclusion of the stakeholders. I also believe as Democrats we had some good ideas that would have improved the bill from its bad state.

“It’s sad when they beat on you when you don’t have any good ideas, and when you do have good ideas, they don’t find any of them significant.”

Crist denied being worried about the political consequences of his decision, as he continues to wage a tough battle for a U.S. Senate seat.

A veto would still give lawmakers time to craft a bill that had more bipartisan support — and, possibly, cooperation from teachers. Education leaders in Florida consider a performance pay plan key to winning as much as $700 million in a competitive federal grant program. Support from the unions would help the state’s chances, too.

State Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, spoke to Crist on Friday morning and said he believed a veto would be the right move — and one that stood a good chance.

“The upshot is this is a Tallahassee creation that has very little traction with everyday people,” Gelber said. “It’s something that Jeb Bush and some of these educational idealogues put together.”

— Sara Kennedy, Herald staff writer, contributed to this report.