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Backlash on Senate Bill 6 could hit Republicans in fall

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers who rammed a teacher tenure bill through the Legislature this session hoped for an education revolution but instead unleashed a revolt — a grass roots movement of parents and teachers armed with a thorny election year issue that could dog politicians to the polls.

The firestorm of criticism that Senate Bill 6 ignited across Florida prompted Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the bill Thursday, calling the policy and the process ''significantly flawed." The far-reaching education proposal would have tied teacher pay to student performance and all but ended tenure.

Crist, fighting an uphill battle for a U.S. Senate seat, promptly headed to Miami for a hero's welcome at a high school on Friday. Democrats started eyeing newly vulnerable Republicans to target for voting for the bill. And the Democrat-leaning teachers union, which had complained of being shut out of the process, began sharpening its swords.

"Clearly, there may be some more opportunities because of what went on here," said Jeff Wright of the Florida Education Association, the state teachers union. "We suddenly have a lot of our members who are interested in running for office."

State Sen. John Thrasher, the bill's chief sponsor and chairman of the state Republican Party, said Friday he had "absolutely no regrets." He predicts the proposal will be back next year and will be imitated by other states. Soon "one form of this will be the law of Florida," he said.

Thrasher said he believes the Legislature's effort was supported by the Republican base, and doubts there will be any repercussions at the polls.

He and other Republican leaders say that the strong piece of legislation was the victim of misinformation by the teachers union, unfounded fears by parents and teachers, and betrayal by Crist, whom they blame for reversing himself on the bill as he fights for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.

"The veto was poll-driven, not policy-driven," said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, the House Republican leader.

Hasner acknowledged the House could have slowed the approval process, made changes or improvements and sent the bill back to the Senate, but said the outcome would not have changed. "The governor would still veto it if he thought it would help him get elected," he said.

Crist dismissed the notion that his veto was motivated by his Senate race. "I didn't analyze it politically," he said Friday. "I analyzed it in terms of what I thought was the right policy at the time for the people."

But as Crist scored points with grateful teachers, visiting schools in Tallahassee and Miami, some Republicans were lamenting their party's miscalculation.

"We absolutely misread the mood of the public," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican and former schoolteacher who opposed the bill.

She criticized Senate leaders for resisting changes to accommodate teachers.

Under the bill, teachers' evaluations would depend on their students' learning gains based on standardized test scores. Teachers with students who performed well would get pay raises, while those whose students failed to see consistent gains could be fired. Tenure would have been ended for new teachers.

When teachers raised concerns about the bill, legislative leaders vowed to fix it with a glitch bill or an executive order. In his veto message, Crist said the bill had "deeply and negatively affected the morale of our teachers, parents and students'' and recommended starting over next year.

Even staunch Republicans felt the ripples of discontent.

"If teachers could pick their students, I would be for it, but you can't pick the students," said Phyllis Myers, a retired teacher who attended a rally for Marco Rubio, Crist's primary opponent, last week in Orlando.

Democrats are ready to stoke the negative vibes.

"This ought to send some shock waves through the Republican leadership," said Rep. Ron Saunders, the Key West Democrat who heads the House 2010 re-election effort. ''Whoever was vulnerable just became more vulnerable because they've activated a very strong group of folks."

Among those who should feel nervous, Democrats said: Republicans in tight election races such as Reps. Rob Schenck of Spring Hill, Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary and Marti Coley of Marianna.

"Although teachers don't support it, I think there is support for it from the general public," Coley said. "I hope they don't hold it against me."

The FEA's Wright said that while the teachers union "seeded'' the growing protests, paying for television ads and urging teachers to organize, even union leaders were surprised by the spontaneous parent-led demonstrations around the state against the bill.

"We'll take credit for it, sure," he said. "But this became so much more than FEA."

How did supposedly savvy GOP politicians manage to misread the public mood?

"They just thought they knew best," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who voted against the bill. "It was a decision filled with hubris."

Gelber, a candidate for attorney general, said Republicans overlooked an important constituency: parents worried about their children's schooling.

It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Republican leaders started rolling out the idea in the fall. With the help of former Gov. Jeb Bush's education reform think tank, the Foundation for Florida's Future, the Senate started hearings on the issue.

The teachers union said members were invited to the meetings, but not allowed to make meaningful changes to the plan.

Legislative leaders say otherwise. "When you start workshopping something in October, it's hard for me to see how someone could call that rushed or that people didn't participate," said Senate President Jeff Atwater, a Republican candidate for Florida's chief financial officer who made the teacher tenure bill a top priority of his session.

But opponents blame Atwater for a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the bill that forced legislative leaders to oppose any amendments during floor debate.

"We firmly believe something took place once he decided to run for CFO and Jeb Bush endorsed him. Things changed and they changed dramatically," Wright said.

When asked Friday if his push for the bill was linked to his campaign, Atwater deflected: "In the end, what we had is a good debate."

But Democrats say the debate may go all the way to the November elections. "It will definitely be a critical issue in this campaign — from governor to Cabinet to Senate and representative," said Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, the Senate Democratic leader.

St. Petersburg Times staff writer Adam Smith and Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com.

Backlash on Senate Bill 6 could hit Republicans in fall 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 8:48pm]
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