A sweeping plan to make it easier to fire teachers and put a bigger spotlight on teacher quality is headed to the Florida Legislature.
A top priority for one of former Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundations, the plan would essentially gut teacher tenure, a status encoded in state law that gives teachers special protections against firing.
Instead of permanent "professional service" contracts, teachers would get annual contracts for the first 10 years, then contracts of no longer than five years after that, according to draft legislation obtained by the St. Petersburg Times.
The plan would apply only to teachers hired after July 2009.
It would not affect the 170,000 teachers currently in the system.
"We can pass a ton of reform, but if we don't have a quality teacher in front of the classroom, it doesn't matter," said Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who will sponsor the legislation in the House.
The reaction from the state teachers union foreshadows a bitter fight. Florida teachers are already chafing under a test-heavy accountability system, salaries below the national average and deep budget cuts, said union spokesman Mark Pudlow.
"And now on top of that you have the idea that we want to take away rights from teachers?" he asked.
The same bill would put teeth into a state law that requires school districts to boost teacher pay in high-poverty schools. Another provision would require the state to report how many teachers in each district oversee "declines in student performance" over several years.
But the proposed erosion of teacher tenure will dominate debate.
At issue are state rules that unions say protect teachers from vindictive administrators but that critics say more often keep bad teachers on the job. Many principals say it takes too much time and paperwork to fire an ineffective teacher and that, as a result, those teachers are either tolerated or shuffled to other schools. Evidence suggests low-income schools have more of them
In the past five years, three public school teachers in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties have been fired for unsatisfactory performance, state records show. Those districts collectively employ more than 25,000 teachers.
Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said the tenure bill will gain traction in this year's legislative session, which begins March 3, because many lawmakers are frustrated with the current system. But he also said it might be tough to pass.
The opposition "is going to be intense, if not ferocious," said Legg, who chairs the House Education Policy Committee. And other issues, such as education funding and the class-size amendment, are going to eat up discussion time.
"I'm not sure the juice is going to be worth the squeeze," agreed Jim Warford, executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators. "We're hemorrhaging (with funding). That's why it hits me as just not a critical issue."
But Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education says now is the perfect time.
"The only way to ensure we continue to make gains is to continue on the path of reform," foundation executive director Patricia Levesque wrote in an e-mail. "Teachers are the key to the formula for success."
The foundation's push comes as teacher quality has emerged as a front-burner issue in school reform debates nationwide.
Michelle Rhee, the schools chief in Washington, D.C., made the cover of Time magazine in December in large part because of her proposal to push out bad teachers in one of the nation's most troubled districts. Rhee, a Democrat, and the district's teachers union is now scrapping over a plan that would allow some teachers to forgo tenure in exchange for higher salaries.
Florida waged a similar battle more than a decade ago.
In 1997, then Education Commissioner Frank Brogan led the charge to abolish teacher tenure. But a bipartisan coalition instead approved what became known as "tenure light." It streamlined and shortened the process for firing bad teachers, but still left hurdles for districts, including giving problem teachers a 90-day window to improve during the following school year and preserving their right to an administrative hearing if districts move to fire them.
Most new teachers in Florida are on annual contracts for three years before they earn tenure. Supporters say that's long enough to determine who's effective and who's not.
Changing the rules will "scare good teachers from going into the profession," said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, the Democrats point man on education issues in the House.
Between the 2005-06 and the 2007-08 school years, Florida hired 65,000 teachers.
Ron Matus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8873