Gov. Crist vetoes teacher tenure bill

TALLAHASSEE

Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday killed the bill that prompted sick-outs, sit-ins, street protests and a flood of opposition throughout the state as Republican lawmakers vowed to try again next year — if not sooner.

Calling it "significantly flawed," Crist decried Senate Bill 6, which would link teacher pay to student test scores and eliminate tenure for all new hires, as both overreaching and too vague.

"We must start over," he said.

The measure's main sponsor, Republican Sen. John Thrasher, said he did not think the bill would see a resurrection this spring.

"That would be hard to do," said Thrasher, of St. Augustine. "Major legislation like this sometimes takes years to pass. This is not done overnight."

But for Rep. John Legg, the Port Richey Republican who sponsored the bill in the House, education reform efforts are not over. He said he intends to find ways to toughen existing laws that require using student performance to evaluate teachers and require schools to have an "evaluation mechanism'' for every course.

"Obviously, that does not happen now," Legg said.

Crist's noontime announcement came as little surprise. Although he initially voiced support for the bill, he had distanced himself as protests mounted. He insisted his decision was not influenced by his faltering primary race for the U.S. Senate.

The governor's office has received nearly 120,000 messages about the bill. Though about 51,000 were still unread, almost 65,000 of the logged messages opposed the bill. Just 3,000 supported the bill.

"This bill has deeply and negatively affected the morale of our teachers, our parents and our students," Crist said. "They are not confident in our system because they do not believe their voices were heard."

Under the bill, half of a teacher's evaluation would depend on students' learning gains. Good gains would equal positive evaluations and pay raises, which teachers said failed to factor the work that doesn't show up on tests — and ignores other forces that affect kids.

Tenure would have been out of the question for new teachers, which Crist highlighted in his problems with the bill.

The measure was a session priority for Republican Party leaders, who rammed the legislation through committees and floor debates as public outcry grew.

It first passed the Senate in a tight 21-17 vote. House leaders made a no-amendment rule to avoid a second vote in the more moderate Senate. The bill passed in the House 64-55.

The strategy aimed at ensuring the bill's passage but may have backfired. Crist criticized the process, saying the legislation was "sped through without meaningful input."

He compared it to the way congressional Democrats passed health reform by "jamming something down their throats."

Response from lawmakers was swift and mostly split along party lines.

"Disappointed'' was the word of the day for many Republican supporters. "Gloating'' was the choice for many of the bill's opponents — from both parties.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush, who lobbied hard for the bill, was one of the many disheartened Republicans.

"By taking this action, Governor Crist has jeopardized the ability of Florida to build on the progress of the last decade," said Bush, chairman of the Foundation for Florida's Future, in a statement.

"Obviously, it's a victory," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "But I'm not uncorking champagne because, frankly, it's really a sad statement that we had to fight this hard to stop something so wrong-headed."

The bill would have made Florida a leader in education reform nationwide, with a more sweeping pay-for-performance plan that any state has enacted. But even supporters of merit pay said the measure was doomed because the process lacked collaboration and transparency.

Crist echoed those concerns. He focused on the fact that it would not allow multiyear contracts and would permanently revoke certification if a teacher needed improvement for two out of five years. Still, Crist said, he agrees with finding a way to measure student gains and build a performance-based pay system.

"We have stepped back from the precipice," said Walter Secada, chairman of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami. "Hopefully rational minds will work it through."

Teachers across the Tampa Bay region celebrated the news.

"We just cheered and cried," said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Teachers Union. "Thankfully, the governor was listening."

In Pasco County, teachers gathered on three street corners holding "thank you" signs and waving to passersby.

"I'm really glad that Crist vetoed the bill," said Jan McHollan, a guidance counselor at Land O'Lakes High School. "How could you say in education you wouldn't reward people for advanced degrees?"

"Teachers are not afraid of being accountable," said Wayne D'Anunzio, a teacher at Bayonet Point Middle School in New Port Richey. "We are not afraid of having some kind of incentive-tied to student progress or gains. We want it done fairly."

Karen Gowan, a first-grade teacher at East Marion Elementary School in Ocala, was visiting the Capitol on a field trip with a group of eighth-graders when Crist made the announcement.

"I am so happy I am here today, walking this beautiful place while history is being made," she said. "It really makes you believe in the process."

District officials offered less praise for the process that culminated in Crist's veto, but said they supported the reform's broad aims.

Julie Janssen, superintendent of the Pinellas County school system, said the bill would have forced districts to set aside 5 percent of state funding for the changes — $36 million for her district in 2011 — just as critical federal stimulus aid dried up.

"That's not the way to treat your constituents," she said.

"There are very good pieces in this bill," Janssen added. "Let's put together realistic plans to really raise the achievement level of our students in Florida."

Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said her district's seven-year, $100 million partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation showed collaboration with teachers unions.

"Every day that a student isn't getting what they need to be successful, we are all responsible," Elia said. "SB 6 is an agenda to support teachers, and we need to move that agenda forward."

Rep. Will Weatherford, chairman of the House Education Policy Council, said he was disappointed by the governor's veto but hopeful that lawmakers will be able to work through the issues collaboratively "to find a way to ensure that all of our students are learning."

Had Crist relayed his concerns to lawmakers earlier in the process, the Wesley Chapel Republican said, "maybe we could have avoided this. ... I understand it wasn't a perfect bill. But I thought it laid a good foundation."

He expected the issues to return to the table in the future, but most likely not in the final weeks of the legislative session.

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, John Frank, Mary Ellen Klas, Lee Logan, Robert Samuels, Ron Matus and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.

Gov. Crist vetoes teacher tenure bill 04/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 16, 2010 8:16am]

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