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Florida teachers brace for a new version of SB 6

In the wake of Tuesday's election results, teachers across Florida are growing anxious that nothing can stop another version of Senate Bill 6, the controversial tenure reform measure that passed the Republican-dominated Legislature in the spring but was dramatically vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

"There's absolute fear out there," said state Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

SB 6 would have radically changed how teachers are paid and evaluated and made it easier for districts to fire them.

With Republican leaders vowing to bring another version of the bill back in 2011, opponents pinned their hopes on Alex Sink, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate who urged Crist to kill it.

But Sink lost to Republican Rick Scott, who indicated during the campaign that he would have signed SB 6. Meanwhile, Republicans increased their already lopsided majorities in both the Senate and House. And Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine — the bill's chief sponsor — coasted to re-election despite being a top target of SB 6 opponents.

In the aftermath, "everybody's riding a wave of emotion," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando County teachers union. "Right now, we're on a surfboard and headed right for the seawall. I'm hoping there's a lifeguard."

To date, nobody has filed a new bill that echoes SB 6.

But Patricia Levesque, executive director of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, has been circulating a draft of teacher quality legislation that, like SB 6, includes changes to teacher salary schedules and professional contracts.

"It's certainly an issue and priority with us," said foundation spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof.

Asked for Scott's thoughts on another SB 6, Scott spokesman Brian Burgess pointed to the education plan that's posted on the campaign site. Among other things, it says, "Rick supports eliminating teacher tenure for new teachers."

"His views have not changed," Burgess wrote in an e-mail, "so you may infer what you wish with respect to a future version of SB 6."

Other groups are gearing up for a new SB 6, too.

Last month, the Florida School Boards Association formed a task force to hash out the complicated issues covered by SB 6 — but in a more deliberative way than the Legislature tackled it, said Ruth Melton, the group's director of legislative affairs.

Under SB 6, teachers for the most part would no longer be paid based on years of experience or what kind of degree they hold, and they would no longer get the legal protections from firing — often called tenure — that teachers have enjoyed for decades. They wouldn't continue getting short-term contracts unless they demonstrated effective performance, based in large part on student learning gains on standardized tests. Most of the provisions would have gone into effect in the 2014-15 school year.

The association wants to take a close look at the research and best practices for things like merit pay and teacher evaluations, Melton said. Task force members include teachers, parents, principals, union representatives, school board members and superintendents.

SB 6 critics panned the Legislature for pushing the bill with little input from stakeholders and conceding few changes. Melton said that "it's too early to tell" whether things will be different next time. "As an association, we try very hard to assume the best."

In the meantime, teachers are assuming the worst.

Bullard, a high school teacher, said fellow teachers started hitting him with questions about SB 6 as soon as he walked into school Wednesday morning. "No one is stepping to the forefront to calm your fears," he said. "It definitely puts an ominous feeling into the school year."

Bullard said he didn't expect a new version of SB 6 would be much different than the original. But he hoped that the legislative process would be.

"Hope reigns eternal with me," Bullard said. "As a member of the minority party in a veto-proof House, that's really all you got."

Vitalo, the union leader in Hernando, saw one positive sign. Scott's transition team includes Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, one of a handful of Republicans to vote against SB 6.

(The team also includes Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville, who opposed SB 6, but several close allies of Bush's, including state Board of Education member Kathleen Shanahan of Tampa.)

"My party talks about less government control, and yet they're opposite in education," said Vitalo, a Republican. "We're just so tired of the doublespeak. Maybe Rick Scott can understand that."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

Florida teachers brace for a new version of SB 6 11/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 9:48pm]
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