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Changes in teacher pay, tenure are coasting through Florida House

TALLAHASSEE — Despite pleas from teachers and Democratic lawmakers to hold off on bold reforms, plans to reinvent how Florida pays and evaluates its teachers soared through legislative committees Wednesday.

The new model would tie at least 50 percent of teachers' salaries and contracts to student performance, replacing a structure that values seniority and uses a last-in, first-out layoff policy.

That practice is "upside-down, illogically," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who introduced the bill and chairs the K-20 competitiveness committee.

The legislation would measure teacher performance based on four categories, and give principals the option to reject teachers who have not been rated highly effective or effective; end teacher contracts for those who receive two unsatisfactory evaluations in three years; give teachers hired after July 1, 2011, annual and not continuing contracts; and put teachers hired after July 1, 2014, on performance-based scales.

The House amended its measure (proposed bill 11-01) to mirror a substitute Senate bill (SB 736) that passed its final committee Wednesday morning. The measures are speeding toward Gov. Rick Scott, who has said he would sign the bill once it reaches his desk. Then-Gov. Charlie Crist famously vetoed SB 6, last year's controversial teacher tenure bill.

The afternoon marked the House bill's first hearing and lasted five hours.

Megan Allen, the 2010 state teacher of the year from Tampa's Cleveland Elementary, said she fears the bill will lead to "a mass exodus" of teachers from high-needs schools who fear lower performance ratings. A stipend won't be enough to keep them there. Allen, who is supporting her husband as he goes to school, choked up when describing her anxiety about pay being linked to standardized tests each year.

It's unfair to her students, she said, most of whom are on free and reduced lunch and have different life experiences than students of higher privilege. "I think about potentially leaving my school, which makes me very upset because I want to teach my students, and my babies."

The Senate version passed the budget committee on a Republican-dominated 15-5 vote, with Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, the only one to veer from party lines.

Democratic efforts to soften the bill failed, and with time running out, panel Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, allowed only 10 minutes of testimony from a handful of people, even though about 30 had asked to speak.

The fact that only supporters were called to speak — a coincidence, Alexander said — only infuriated opponents even more. Some, like Alachua County teacher Chris Ott, had driven 150 miles or more to the Capitol.

When Alexander ended public comment, Ott began a verbal confrontation with the budget chief, saying, "I didn't even get a chance to get up to the mike today, and I'm wondering what that BS is all about. … That's not fair!"

"We took as much testimony as we could," said Alexander, who summoned security. Two previous Senate committee hearings had allotted several hours for public testimony but ended early after exhausting the signup list.

Ott was among a herd of teachers who trickled into the House meeting after the Senate vote.

Opponents there chided the bill for not rewarding teachers with more experience and advanced degrees, and for not encouraging professional development and mentoring.

Supporters argued that the current system rewards mediocrity and provides no incentives for teachers to work harder. Effective teachers would have nothing to fear when the bill becomes law, several said.

"I've seen teachers work the contract hours, no more, no less," said Rhonda Lochiatto, a teacher from Deltona. "They receive the same pay as the teachers who come in early and stay until nightfall."

Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, was the committee's most vocal opponent. He said the bill was not student-centered because it deals with "snapshot assessments."

The Republican-driven House subcommittee approved the bill along party lines.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or ksanders@sptimes.com.

Changes in teacher pay, tenure are coasting through Florida House 02/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 10:46pm]
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