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Florida Republicans push major school overhaul

TALLAHASSEE — An increasingly conservative Senate pushed forward a series of Republican-led education measures Tuesday that could dramatically alter the landscape of Florida's public schools.

Students could face tougher academic requirements, more money could be directed toward private, religious schools, and teacher tenure could be eliminated.

The bills, which are expected to be approved in the Senate today, call for the state's biggest education overhaul in a decade.

Florida would be the first in the nation to so closely link student test scores to teacher salaries, and one of just a handful of states that do not award multiple-year contracts to teachers with classroom experience.

Meanwhile, private schools could eventually collect tax dollars worth as much as 80 percent of the per pupil spending awarded by the state to public schools.

Proponents peg the measures as a sweeping reform movement aimed at better steeling Florida students for adult life.

"Our kids need the best and the brightest. We are competing in a global economy," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who is pushing to end teacher tenure and link merit pay to student test scores.

But critics claim the measures are more closely rooted in politics than education reform. They point fingers at Thrasher, an influential former House speaker who was elected chairman of the Florida Republican Party last month.

"It's a new dynamic we have. We have a new senator who came in during a special election who is also the party chairman," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. "That does account for some of the increased movement to the right."

Thrasher's response: "That's hogwash."

Still, the march toward education reform is becoming one of the most partisan fights of the legislative session, with many Senators voting along party lines. With nowhere near enough votes to kill the education bills Tuesday, Democratic leaders instead tried without success to water down the proposed laws with a series of amendments.

Lobbyists on both sides of the boiling battle have launched campaigns to engage parents and community leaders. The teachers union is running commercials in Tallahassee and some other key areas of the state denouncing the proposed changes, and proponents of the voucher program plan to rally this morning in front of the Capitol.

Thrasher's bill (SJR 6) is one of the most controversial proposals. Teachers would have annual contracts, and school districts would be required to set aside at least 5 percent of their state money to pay for a new teacher evaluation system.

"Tenure rewards ineffective people," said Thrasher. "That's the bottom line."

Hillsborough County Schools, which this winter won a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, would be exempt.

Democrats argue the measure is excessively punitive.

"You do not weed out bad teachers by treating all teachers as bad," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.

The other proposed changes advanced Tuesday include:

• Voters would have the opportunity to relax the state's 2002 constitutional amendment that required smaller class sizes (SJR 2). If approved by three-fifths of the Legislature and 60 percent of the voters, size caps would be based on school averages rather than classroom counts.

• The maximum amount of money available for the state's tax scholarship program, where corporations are allowed to receive a tax credit if they make a donation to an approved voucher school, would grow from $118 million to $140 million (SB 2126).

• High school students would eventually have to pass end-of-year courses in geometry, algebra, biology and chemistry, which would replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (SB4).

Rep. John Legg, chairman of the House PreK-12 Policy Committee, said state representatives are closely watching the Senate's education battle and will likely adopt similar measures. He doesn't expect backing from Democrats or teachers unions.

"In terms of the philosophical concept, we know they'll never buy into this," said Legg, R-Port Richey.

Times staff writer Jeffrey Solocheck contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Florida Republicans push major school overhaul 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 10:21pm]
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