A weekend interview with Sen. Dennis Jones
Last week, state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, was one of only four Senate Republicans who voted against SB 6, the sweeping bill that would would essentially gut tenure for new teachers and tie teacher pay to student performance. Jones spoke with reporter Ron Matus early this week about his vote.
Most Republicans in the Senate voted for SB 6. Why did you vote against it?
I voted against it from the standpoint that I felt the timing of trying to make these substantial increases in education were poor based on where the economy is right now. People are worried about losing their jobs, there’s 12 percent unemployment. And now you give up someone’s ability to think in terms of multi-year contracts. I just thought it was a fear factor. Here again, we went four years with state employees having no pay raise. And now we’re talking about impacting our health insurance, which is a substantial portion of our income. I just felt the timing was not right to make these drastic changes. All politics is local. And I said if I had gotten the first phone call or letter supporting it, it would be the first one. I have absolutely not one letter from a constituent or a teacher supporting these changes.
So is it more a matter of bad timing than a bad idea?
I think it could be a little bit of both. When you start to make these radical changes, it needs to be a two-way street. I think the teachers and the administration and the school board needs to play a part in it. Yet when I talk to our local school board, when they came to Tallahassee, the school board was certainly not supportive of it when we met with them. Individual teachers were not supportive of it. And you have to remember, I came from a family of teachers from Pinellas County. My mother was a teacher for 30 years. My father was a principal. And I’m a product of the public school system. I just think the timing, with the economy the way it is now, with so many people fearful for their jobs, that it just sends the wrong message to have that kind of radical change at this particular period of time, in such a short period of time that it was debated. And I don’t think there was the input statewide.
Why is it moving so fast? Why isn’t the Legislature taking a more deliberative approach?
I really couldn’t answer that question. I’m not the one who sets the agenda. But I just feel like I speak for myself. And there was only a few Republicans who did vote against it. But here again, I’ve been fairly consistent. I have voted for the teachers since I’ve been elected. I was against vouchers. I’m against tax credits (scholarships). So I mean nothing as far as my particular profile has changed much. I just feel like if you want to measure a year’s accomplishment with a student, then certainly teachers need to play a little role in that. Who is going to judge them if they basically have got a year’s gain for a year’s time spent? Another teacher? A principal? A school board member who’s never even met the teacher, nor the students? Too many things were open-ended and left open. I felt it was in my best interest to vote no.
Here’s a question supporters might ask: What’s wrong with holding teachers accountable for student performance?
I think if you want to hold teachers accountable for their performance, that’s fine if the teachers are all dealt the same deck of cards. But you know, in our particular county, we have socioeconomic changes based on what kind of area of the county you are representing. Are you going to hold me to the same standard if I have a classroom of students in Midtown or Feather Sound?
But the argument would be that it’s not how many kids you get to the bar, it’s how much gains you get out of your kids.
That’s the point I made earlier. Who’s going to measure that amount of gain? Is it going to be a school board member? Is it going to be a principal? Is it going to be another teacher? I mean, you’re going to have every single variable, not only within Pinellas County, but from county to county. How are we going to have statewide standards when we have 67 counties and we don’t know who’s holding who accountable for performance gain?
Here’s another question supporters might ask: What’s wrong with teachers being hired and fired in a way that’s more like how the rest of us are hired and fired?
I think if the teachers played a role in what’s going to determine what their annual contract involves, then there’s probably nothing wrong with it. But to change it in the middle of the stream with 12 percent unemployment creates a fear factor. And there again, if we had had input from the teachers and the school board and we had this debated around the state, possibly going to annual contracts would be more acceptable. But I think right now, based on where we are, it just creates more apathy and let’s say more frustration than it does good results. And how are you going to get good results from a teacher if No. 1, they’re so afraid to do their job because it’s going to be based on some test they’re not even familiar with or some performance when they don’t know who’s going to evaluate them.
Should teachers get special protection from firing?
I don’t think that’s the case. There’s already ways to get rid of bad teachers. If you talk to our school board, I imagine each year they get rid of a certain number of teachers that are underperforming or for other reasons ...
So you don’t buy the argument that it’s an unwieldy process to get rid of a bad teacher?
I think it’s probably difficult. It’s no more difficult than when I had a medical center, I had a staff of 25 people. It wasn’t particularly easy to get rid of a person even in my medical center. You had to worry about them filing for unemployment when maybe they weren’t deserving of it. Or there’s reasons that you needed to have them fired that you didn’t necessarily want to have public record.
But they didn’t have it written in state statute that they had x amount of months to get better. And didn’t have it written in state statute that they could go to an administrative hearing.
That’s correct. And they were also in the private sector, and they weren’t in the public sector. I think that made a difference too.
Is there anything in the bill that you like?
Well I think the overall goal of the bill to push students to a little bit higher level. I certainly think that has a lot of merit. I can say that when I’ve been down to Bonaire and Aruba, schools are voluntary and they have 90 percent attendance. Also, when they’re a sophomore they speak four languages and when they’re a senior, they speak five. Nobody told them it was difficult. So I think you can push children. You can push students to a higher level. It just has to be the mindset of where they start and where you want them to end up. And we probably have the bar set too low. So I certainly would be for raising the bar. But I think it has to be where everybody buys into it. The parents, the teachers, the administrators and the state.
Some people have said this bill would deter people from going into teaching. Do you think that’s true?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t go into teaching. No. 1, teacher pay is inadequate. Right now, why would you get a bachelor’s degree or go on to get a master’s degree to start a profession probably making under $35,000 a year?
But that hasn’t kept people from going into the profession. We still fill our slots every year.
Well, it’s not that easy. In Pinellas alone, we replace 500 teachers a year. And they have to look around. Because the University of South Florida as well as St. Pete College don’t produce enough teachers to fill just our vacancies. They have to look out of state to fill even what we lose now. We’re constantly looking and trying to compete for teachers. I think this will make it more difficult.
What can people do to stop this bill? Does it make a difference to rally or send emails?
I think the consumer input or the public’s input is important. I think the editorial boards certainly have some influence also on public opinion and on the legislative opinion. Also the governor as well. I think they need to play a bigger role than they’ve been playing on something that’s going to be this much of a major decision.
Can it be stopped? Is it a done deal?
Well it’s not my legislation so I wouldn’t want to predict that. I thought the Indian compact would have been a done deal three years ago and we’re still working on it.
There have been rumors about reprisals against Republicans who voted against this bill. Is there anything to that? Are you worried about repercussions from leadership?
Not really. I basically have been on the leadership team in the past, and I’ve been off the leadership team in the past. At present time, I’m part of Sen. Atwater’s leadership team, as far as I know. I would just say that he come around one time and asked me if I could support the legislation. I said no. He never came back a second time.