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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Florida Passes Teacher Merit-Pay Bill

Is this a sign of something coming to New York?

Teachers and other opponents of the merit pay legislation protest in a walk from Lee Middle School to the CTA/OESPA office in Orlando on April 8, 2010. (JACOB LANGSTON, ORLANDO SENTINEL / April 8, 2010)

House passes landmark teacher merit-pay bill
After more than nine hours of debate, lawmakers vote along party lines in approving historic bill. But will Crist sign it?

By Josh Hafenbrack and Leslie Postal , Orlando Sentinel, April 9, 2010


The Florida House passed a landmark teacher merit-pay bill early this morning that aims to put the state at the forefront of a controversial national push to tie teacher compensation to student performance.

The bill (SB6), identical to the Senate version that passed two weeks ago, upends the current salary system based on years worked and advanced degrees earned. In its place, it creates a new, complicated plan that eliminates tenure for beginning teachers and ties teacher pay largely to student learning gains on standardized tests

Before a marathon debate on merit pay that lasted more than nine hours, the House sent three other major education bills to Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday that would:

• Add tough, new graduation requirements (SB 4) mandating students take harder math and science courses and pass new end-of-course exams to earn diplomas.

• Ask voters to scale back the state's class-size law (SJR 2) they approved in 2002. If voters agreed in November, it would leave class sizes in Florida pretty much where they are today.

• Expand a voucher program (SB 2126) that gives poor children scholarships to attend private schools.

But the sweeping teacher merit-pay plan is the reform that has generated the most controversy – sparking outrage among Florida's teachers.

Florida would become the first state in the nation to enact such a broadside on teacher tenure, which Republicans said would reward excellent teachers with higher salaries and get rid of a system that promotes mediocrity

The House began debating the merit-pay measure at 5 p.m. Thursday and didn't take a final vote until 2:26 a.m. today, after 69 House members debated for 10 or 15 minutes each with dueling talking points. The final vote: 64-55.

Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, called it one of the most "transformational policy changes that our state and our nation has ever seen."

"It is tough and it is scary and does make you do a gut check and ask, is this right?" Cannon said. "And the answer is, it absolutely is right."

Every House Democrat and 11 Republicans opposed the measure, but the GOP's lopsided majorities in Tallahassee provided just enough cushion to push it through. Now, it's up to an undecided Gov. Charlie Crist on whether to veto the bill or sign it into law.

Under the bill, pay raises for Florida's 167,000 teachers would be based primarily on student test scores. No longer would years of experience and degrees dictate teacher salary. Instead, pay would hinge on student "learning gains," as charted by standardized tests, and principal reviews.

In addition, the bill would eliminate tenure job protections for teachers hired after July. New teachers would work on one-year contracts, which would be renewed only if their students show testing gains two out of every three years.

Advocates say it will improve Florida's public schools by rewarding good teachers with bigger paychecks and weeding out ineffective instructors.

"This is what I like about the bill…If you do a good job, you make more money," said Rep. Mike Horner, R -Kissimmee, arguing it would motivate teachers and have a "profound effect on the students in this state."

Many teachers, however, view it as unfair, unrealistic and unworkable.

"The Legislature truly just doesn't care about public schools," thundered Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the teachers union. "The 2010 legislative session turned back the clock to the 1960s in Florida. They've truly just undone everything we've accomplished since Reubin Askew was governor."

If it becomes law with Crist's signature, the Florida Education Association may challenge the legislation in court, arguing that it interferes with collective bargaining and leaves too many details to be worked out later by the Florida Department of Education.

The late-night session was rare, especially to decide such a weighty issue. But in a chamber with 120-members, many who love giving speeches, the hours dragged on.

Some legislators ticked off as many of their teachers as they could remember. Just before midnight, one representative performed a symbolic burial of the bill – stuffing it in a trash can. A few minutes laters, at 11:45 p.m. Thursday, House Speaker Larry Cretul announced there were still 20 scheduled speakers left. Legislators let out an audible gasp, then settled in for three more hours.

Democrats were "bordering on fury," in the words of Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Davie. Critics expressed alarm about linking teacher livelihoods to student scores, even though teachers can't control external factors such as student's home life or socioeconomic status.

The bill is "discouraging and insulting" to reachers, said Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota.

"The impact of this bill could well be devastating to the morale of teachers around this state," he said. "It amounts to a gigantic social experiment" on testing and teachers.

"Teachers are teachers -- not miracle workers," said Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, one of the Republicans to cross party lines and oppose the bill.

Most Republicans said it's essential to get rid of teacher tenure. The system means "no matter how bad you are, once you've been there for three years, short of committing some heinous crime, you can't be fired," said Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda. "Tenure means never having to say you're sorry."

But teachers dislike that the bill ends the job security of "continuing contracts" and fear it would hold their paychecks hostage to students whose academic performance can be impacted by their world outside the classroom.

Some also question how the state and the school districts, as the bill requires, can develop so many new tests to cover teachers whose work is not tested on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or national exams such as Advanced Placement.

Orange County teacher Regina Hellinger was so upset by the bill that she went to Tallahassee to testify against it at a March 25 House panel hearing.

A pay system tied so tightly to student academic performance will force teachers to abandon other activities that enrich students' education and will be "devastating" to public education, she said.

"It's so counter-productive to what we need to do, which is address the whole child," she said.

Hellinger, who teachers gifted students at Endeavor Elementary, said she has never seen her colleagues so angry and upset by Tallahassee-based decisions.

"I think teachers are going to react by actively campaigning against people who voted for this," she said. " This is going to bring us to the point where we're not going to be complacent anymore."

Teachers unions in both Orange and Volusia counties staged rallies this evening to show their opposition to the bill.

Osceola County teacher Marylee Chavez moved to Florida from Wisconsin six years ago. She said the proposal would make Florida unattractive to out-of-state teachers, who just a few years ago were actively recruited to work here.

"This is going to scare a lot of really great teachers who have been in the system a long time," said the second-grade teacher at Kissimmee Elementary. "It's going to make them say, ‘Why on earth would I want to be in Florida?'"

The big question now: What will Crist do? Although he'd previously expressed support, Crist is now considering a veto, citing teacher concerns. The governor said before Thursday's vote he hasn't decided what he'll do, but added he's "listening to the people of Florida, my boss." He has a week to act.

Crist's office has been inundated by opponents of the bill: 6,161 phone calls, 6,597 e-mails and another 3,358 "organized campaign" e-mails as of Wednesday. By comparison, 53 residents called or e-mailed the governor to voice support.

Republican legislators are furious about Crist's shift. "He's told me he's going to sign it, and I take him at his word," said Senate sponsor John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

Leslie Postal can be reached at or 407-420-5273.

Florida's merit-pay plan for teachers prompts debate
A measure moving through the Legislature would make performance paramount in deciding a teacher's pay raise

High school teacher Kathy Pham has earned two master's degrees and advanced certification over her 27 years in the classroom -- and thousands of dollars in extra pay.

Nicole Singleton Greenberg, a nine-year teacher, is planning to get her master's degree in elementary education.

If a bill speeding through the Florida Legislature becomes law, the Boulevard Heights Elementary teacher will likely not see any additional pay for that degree.

``It's definitely disheartening,'' she said.

The measure, which has passed the Florida Senate and one committee in the House, would base teacher pay in part on student achievement rather than the current system of years of teaching experience and credentials.

Some education experts say Florida districts could struggle to recruit new teachers if the bill becomes law, and fewer existing teachers would seek higher education or extra certification.

Performance-based pay is a polarizing concept, with supporters saying it will boost pay for highly effective teachers and provide young educators with a quicker way to earn more.

But opponents say it would result in an even stronger reliance on standardized tests and, by eliminating tenure in the future, leave new teachers without any hope for job security.

Districts would have to make their teacher contracts conform to the law or risk losing state money.

``We all want to have better teachers and improve education for everyone,'' said Marilyn Neff, an associate dean at the University of Miami School of Education. ``But some of the provisions in the bill aren't going to have that effect.''

Spurred by powerful teacher unions, thousands of teachers, students and parents have marched against the bill and flooded legislators' and Gov. Charlie Crist's in boxes with protests.

While the bill is backed by many Republicans, some GOP lawmakers are speaking out against it.

``We're trying to encourage Florida to have the best teachers,'' said state Rep. Julio Robaina, R-Miami, who has planned a Monday news conference to oppose the bill. ``It discourages anyone from wanting to come to Florida to teach.''

If signed into law, the new bill would make teacher performance paramount in deciding a teacher's pay raise. For classroom teachers, at least half of their pay would be based on student improvement on the FCAT and other standardized tests. Principals and other instructional personnel would use the average improvement for the entire school. Teachers whose students don't make learning gains could lose their jobs.

The proposed law, parts of which would go into effect in 2014, would eliminate tenure for new teachers, who would instead be on single-year contracts.

Wayne Driscoll, the dean of the faculty at Nova Southeastern University's Fischler School of Education and Human Services, worries the bill might discourage teachers from pursuing advanced degrees.

That, he said, could have an adverse effect on teacher quality in Florida.

``Masters and specialist courses give teachers the chance to talk about the profession, to look at trends and data,'' he said. ``Teachers can't be counted upon, in the busy day that they have, to sit there and go searching for new techniques and new methods. They just don't have the time.''

But Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith said the vast majority of teachers who get advanced degrees do so in fields like administration, not the area they teach.

If the bill becomes law, he said, ``it'll change the market out there dramatically.'' He predicted teachers would seek out programs that would ``make a difference in their ability to be successful with kids.''

Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a teacher advocacy group, said the impact on teacher recruitment would likely be mixed, with some attracted to the idea of merit-based pay and others getting scared off. The council supports the bill.

``Hopefully, what they'll see is that this isn't a gotcha system meant to gut every teacher in Florida,'' she said. ``It's meant to identify the best performers and identify the weakest and help everybody in between to develop and improve.''

One way that teachers have boosted their pay is to go through the rigorous and expensive National Board Certification process, which they must complete over the course of a school year. The state used to cover 90 percent of the $2,500 application fee. Now it covers nothing. The state has also cut back on salary incentives for teachers who are certified, though teachers still get a bonus of up to 10 percent of the average teacher salary every year for 10 years.

Florida has the second-highest number of teachers in the nation who have been certified; Broward is the country's top district.

Teachers who aren't certified by 2010 would not receive any compensation under the bill.

Karen Garr, regional outreach director for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, said she believes fewer teachers would seek certification without the incentive -- which, she said, would be detrimental.

``If we can hang onto these people by giving them this career growth opportunity, and one that we know makes a difference to kids, then that seems to be a boost for the schools, the communities, the state as a whole.''

Pham, who got her certification in 2001 and is getting recertified now, said she would have gone through the process even without the extra pay.

``It's important, it's valuable, it makes you a better teacher,'' said the Hialeah Senior High language arts teacher. ``My students benefit.''

Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, said Florida would suffer if fewer teachers sought the ``well-developed, nationally recognized'' certification.

``That would be a loss,'' he said.

Jennings said changing to a performance pay system is tricky because research has not proved that performance pay is effective.

``There's a nub of truth in this in trying to look at test scores to see how well teachers do,'' he said. ``It's something that has to be done very carefully before it destroys the teaching profession.''