TALLAHASSEE — In the midst of the most intense lobbying he has faced as governor, Charlie Crist faces a stark choice: sign a bill opposed by thousands of Florida teachers or veto it and alienate major forces in the business community and the Republican-led Legislature.
"Like no other issue I've seen before," Crist said during recent campaign stops.
The governor is doing his best not to tip his hand. But Crist has cited multiple problems with Senate Bill 6 that point to a potential veto: It takes too much power away from local educators, offers vague guidance on how teachers will be evaluated and was pushed through the House and Senate with little input from the public.
Crist, who has boasted of his family's ties to education, even hinted that the Crist clan is not gung-ho for the bill.
"They have concerns about it, I'll say that," he told the Associated Press on Tuesday.
His decision could have sweeping ramifications not only on state politics, but also his career. In their U.S. Senate race, Crist trails in the polls behind former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who supports the measure.
"Charlie Crist knows which side his bread is buttered on," said Pinellas School Board Chairwoman Janet Clark, a Democrat who opposes the bill. "If he doesn't veto this, he will have lost teachers, he will have lost a lot of parents."
The legislation proposes the most dramatic overhaul of Florida public schools in years, linking teacher pay to student performance.
But the bill would give vast oversight authority to the state Department of Education to create the rules that will make it all a reality, some say, raising too many questions on how the state will account for personal issues such as family life, income, language skills and other factors that shape student performance.
"Everybody said, 'we will fix all of this, we will fix all of this' but I have been up here long enough to know that not everybody fixes everything after it is done," said Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs. He opposed the bill.
Something Crist may also consider is the push back from school districts that fear SB6 would further erode local control of schools. For years, state lawmakers have played a bigger and bigger role in local district affairs. That has led to widespread grumbling but not the kind ignited by SB6.
SB6 "may very well be a tipping point for a lot of people," Clark said.
Crist, who has until midnight Friday to make his move, continued to be lobbied heavily by both sides.
His predecessor, Jeb Bush, called to ask him to sign it.
Bill proponents claim teachers unions have incited much of the public uproar over the bill through a misinformation campaign. They've mounted their own, less visible, effort to persuade Crist, imploring supporters to write and call the governor's office.
On Tuesday, conservative and business leaders held a news conference at the Capitol to send a message. "We want Gov. Crist to know the business community is standing behind him and we are standing up for this legislation," said Jose Gonzales of the Associated Industries of Florida.
Opponents, meanwhile, have bombarded the governor's office with more than 38,000 e-mails and phone calls. Another 42,000 e-mails have yet to be read.
Crist was also greeted with overwhelming citizen opposition during his weekend campaign stops at The Villages and Tavares, a pair of Republican strongholds in Central Florida.
"You always try to listen to the people, regardless, and if they can't respect that, tough," he said.
But what Crist calls listening to the people, critics call putting his finger in the wind and bowing to the loudest voices.
Crist also has been accused — falsely, he says — of breaking his word to the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, that he would sign the bill.
"I've never guaranteed anything," Crist said.
Thrasher responded Tuesday saying, "He (Crist) said he loved the bill and he could not wait to get it."
Still, it likely won't be an easy decision for Crist, who already infuriated Republican lawmakers by vetoing legislation last week that would have resurrected their access to potent partisan fundraising machines known as leadership funds.
Another high-profile veto from Crist could put a number of his session priorities at risk, including the confirmation of the remainder of Crist's appointments and a renewable energy bill.
The first hint that Crist might veto SB6 came last week, two days before the House approved the legislation. Crist expressed concern about the bill's impact on special needs teachers, saying a friend doubted that his son would be able to show learning gains as prescribed by the bill.
It's a concern shared not only by special education teachers, but by educators in other specialized fields, too, such as those who teach English as a second language. They say much of a student's success is related to what a child brings — or doesn't bring — to the classroom.
"A teacher can be a bad teacher and the students can do great," said Elena San Pedro, a special education major at University of South Florida and mother of an autistic child. "Or a teacher can be a great teacher and the student can do terribly."
Crist also has sought feedback on the issue close to home.
Catherine Crist Kennedy, a former Pinellas County assistant principal who now works at St. Petersburg College, wouldn't discuss details but did say she had talked with her older brother about her concerns.
"Obviously we're brother and sister and we share thoughts," she said. "But my little perspective is only that . . . I know my brother and what he does is analyze all the information that is given to him that helps him make data-driven decisions."
Asked how he would a defend criticism that a veto would be an endorsement of the status quo in education, Crist seemed ready to take that hit.
He cited the state's efforts to grade schools and its improved ranking in accountability measures by Education Week magazine. "We've been pretty revolutionary in Florida," he said.
Times/Herald writers Ron Matus, Mary Ellen Klas, Rebecca Catalanello and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.