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Critics of SB 6, the education bill, run gamut from tea partiers to teachers

TALLAHASSEE — As leader of a tea party group deep in the Florida Panhandle, Henry Kelley would appear to have nothing in common with a teachers union known as a staunch ally of the Democratic Party.

But Kelley and the Florida Education Association agree on one thing: that the teacher-pay bill known as Senate Bill 6 is a bad idea.

Kelley, who has a master's degree in finance and lives in Fort Walton Beach, said he opposes the bill because of its top-down nature: It would empower the education bureaucracy in Tallahassee to write rules for a teacher-pay program at the expense of elected local school boards.

"Everybody's trying to consolidate and create larger government," said Kelley, vice chairman of the tea party group in Fort Walton Beach. "Why aren't Republicans acting like Republicans? How can you say you're for limited government if you support this bill?"

Kelley's hometown senator, Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, voted for SB 6 and is a strong supporter. But Gaetz acknowledged that Kelley's viewpoint is shared by other conservatives.

"There's an honest difference of opinion among conservatives and limited-government advocates about this bill," Gaetz said. "Henry represents a strain of opinion that is suspicious of the Department of Education and anything about a state policy that doesn't involve enough local flexibility."

Tea party opposition to a GOP-sponsored teacher pay bill has caught the attention of Gov. Charlie Crist and his advisers in his race for the U.S. Senate. That could be significant, because it offers even broader cover for Crist to veto the bill: He could argue that opposition runs the gamut of the political spectrum.

Crist got a resounding welcome from child advocates at a dinner Monday night for Children's Week in Tallahassee, and 17-year old Miami-Dade high school student Michelle Ruiz pleaded with him to veto the bill, calling it bad for teachers.

The governor said his skepticism about the bill is not related to his U.S. Senate aspirations, and he had some blunt words for his critics.

"I always try to listen to the people regardless," he said, "and if they can't respect that, tough."

Organizations and individuals that support the bill have begun bracing for the possibility of a Crist veto. They include former Gov. Jeb Bush, the state Department of Education, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, supports the bill. His primary rival, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, does not.

Crist's opponent for the Republican nomination for Senate, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, backs it.

Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future launched a TV ad Monday urging people to make supportive calls to Crist's office.

In a highly unusual occurrence for a major piece of legislation, the voices of powerful business and lobbying forces are being drowned out — at least in Crist's view — by massive opposition from teachers and parents, who have blitzed him with thousands of e-mails and phone calls. The governor's office said that 30,000 e-mails on SB 6 have not yet been read.

"If the governor vetoes this bill, he's listening to the wrong people," said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries.

Bishop said the Florida Education Association stymies reform in teaching by defending incompetent and ineffective teachers. But he acknowledged the union has done an effective job at mobilizing opposition to the bill by urging people to call and write the governor and legislators.

"They've done a good job of rustling up folks," Bishop said, "but it's not the majority. It's a very vocal minority."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Critics of SB 6, the education bill, run gamut from tea partiers to teachers 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 10:43pm]
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