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Florida needs SB 6 to win Race to the Top, education commissioner says

The problem with Florida's Race to the Top application was not too little teacher support, Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith says.

The stumbling block, Smith contends, is the lack of law tying student achievement to teacher evaluation and compensation — something Florida's teachers are battling to stop.

"Tennessee and Delaware have in place statutes that are very similar to Senate Bill 6," Smith told the St. Petersburg Times in his first media interview since Florida failed to win a federal education reform grant from the Obama administration.

"If we're able to have legislation for this to be implemented statewide, it strengthens the application. It gives the assurance we will deliver," said Smith, who has advocated heavily for the measure and accused teacher groups of intentionally misrepresenting what it would do.

The National Center for Teacher Quality put out a report just before this week's Race to the Top grant announcement, which went to Delaware and Tennessee, signaling that those two states (along with Rhode Island) had strong laws in place to back proposed reforms dealing with improving teacher quality.

Florida, it noted, had a strong set of proposals but depended on voluntary participation by teachers and districts to go along with the state's Race to the Top plan.

Smith said that paper offered the first indication that Florida might not get the $1 billion it sought from the federal fund.

"This is what Race to the Top is about, connecting student achievement to evaluations and compensation," Smith said. "It comes back to our capacity to deliver."

A careful review of the score sheets from the U.S. Department of Education for Florida and the two winning states confirmed his viewpoint. The area carrying the most points was "Great Teachers and Great Leaders," and Florida fell short of the others in that key provision.

Smith acknowledged that having stronger stakeholder support also would benefit the state's effort. But he suggested that after multiple meetings with Florida Education Association leaders over the state's plan — including right before Smith, Gov. Charlie Crist and others went to Washington D.C. to defend the plan — it remained clear that the teachers union would not offer its backing.

That despite what he deemed every effort to structure the proposal to give local school districts and teacher associations leeway to develop the specific details that would implement the overarching policy of pay for performance.

That's a policy that Smith is steadfastly convinced Florida should adopt, regardless of the anger teachers have shown over Senate Bill 6. The state needs bold reform, he said, not pilot projects.

"We have a chance to pass a good law and work with our teachers to get it passed," Smith said, noting the bill provides three years for writing rules and procedures. "If we can get some benefit of Race to the Top funding, that would be helpful. But not essential."

The next deadline for Race to the Top applications is June 1. The Florida House Education Policy Council is scheduled to hear House Bill 7189 (its version of SB 6) for eight hours on Monday.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Florida needs SB 6 to win Race to the Top, education commissioner says 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 9:32am]
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