State Politics

Facebook: Political info, news, Town Hall, all rolled into one

MANATEE — During a late-night debate in the House of Representatives last week over teacher tenure and pay, legislators were scanning the Facebook Internet Web site, where tens of thousands of people were following the discussion via electronic devices.

“I think this was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen, because there were legislators on the floor directly communicating with voters,” said state Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.

Lawmakers regularly get comments from lobbyists when they’re on the floor during debate, but “never is the general public able to talk to legislators as the bills are being discussed,” he said.

“It’s pretty remarkable, it’s a different world,” Fitzgerald said.

Monday, the Facebook group “Florida Teachers Against Pay-For-Performance Salary/Pay Scales,” which listed 60,800 fans at one point during the day, had posted an image of a shiny apple accompanied by the message: “Veto-SB6!”

It referred to Senate Bill 6, calling for elimination of teacher tenure, and tying pay to student test scores. The proposed law would base half a teacher’s evaluation on progress that students make on tests; the current system rewards teachers based on years of experience, advanced degrees and extra certification.

The Facebook group Monday was discussing both its opposition to the bill, which passed in the House in the wee hours Friday 64-55 and last month in the Senate, 21-17, and an effort to lobby Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the legislation.

Contributors listed e-mail addresses and phone numbers for the governor’s office, along with news about rallies in Lakeland, Seminole County and Miami-Dade counties, a story from the Orlando Sentinel with the headline “Crist to Veto Merit Pay Bill,” and a listing of other Facebook groups opposed to the legislation.

The membership of 10 such groups Monday was 141,974, according to one posting.

“I must have seen a half dozen sites that popped up in opposition to SB 6 and HB 7189 (its House companion),” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers’ union with 140,000 members.

“It’s just kind of an evolving way of communicating, there’s an immediacy in it that kind of ratchets up the influence or the importance of it,” he said.

“In the case of the marathon session we had the other night, there was such intense interest, tons of people were watching, commenting, as speakers were talking, people were commenting on it,” Pudlow said. “It’s information, and news, and a Town Hall, all kind of rolled into one on the computer.

“It does kind of make it a little different dynamic, and one interesting for democracy,” he said.

There are also sites advocating the proposed law, such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s www.classroomflorida.com.

Local teachers are saying plenty, said Pat Barber, president of the Manatee Education Association, which represents 3,100 teachers and paraprofessionals. The organization hopes for a veto, she said.

The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.

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