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Gov. Scott signs first bill: Sweeping teacher pay, tenure, evaluation overhaul

After signing SB 736 in Jacksonville earlier Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott traveled to Pepin Academies, a charter school for special-needs students in Tampa, to call for more school choice and more charter schools. Story, 11A; editorial on education, 12A

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

After signing SB 736 in Jacksonville earlier Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott traveled to Pepin Academies, a charter school for special-needs students in Tampa, to call for more school choice and more charter schools. Story, 11A; editorial on education, 12A

Now the experiment begins.

Florida launched into a historic, high-stakes venture Thursday to see if radical changes to the teaching profession can boost student success.

In the spotlight: Senate Bill 736, a sweeping package signed by Gov. Rick Scott that dramatically alters how teachers are hired, fired, evaluated and paid.

More than two years in the making, the new law is one of the most far-reaching of its kind in the nation and one of the biggest shake-ups in the history of Florida public schools. Tenure is gone for new teachers, and contracts and pay will be tied to student test scores.

The push for reform has been a gut-wrenching ride, marked by protests, clashes between lawmakers and unions and widespread anxiety among the state's 170,000 teachers.

It also drew distinctly different action from two Florida governors — one killed a similar bill last year and the other wasted no time in making it the first law he signed.

"I am proud that the first bill I sign is this important legislation that will give Florida the best-educated work force to compete in the 21st century economy,'' Scott said in a prepared statement. He signed the bill Thursday at a charter school in Jacksonville. "We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher.''

Florida's teachers knew the law was coming. Scott promised on the campaign trail that he would sign it. But many were still glum Thursday, uncertain about the future and worried about vital aspects of the law that have yet to be fleshed out.

Teachers are "worried and they're afraid," said Paige Campell, a behavior specialist and 32-year educator at Pinellas Secondary School, an alternative school in Pinellas Park that serves students with discipline problems. "I'm not typically a pessimistic person . . . but I'm pessimistic about the way they've gone about this, I'm pessimistic about the teaching profession, I'm pessimistic about morale."

Outside the Pepin Academies charter school in Tampa, which Scott visited later Thursday, about a dozen anti-Scott picketers criticized the new law. "Shame!" Shame!" Shame!" they shouted as his motorcade drove away.

When word gets out that Scott signed the bill, "it's going to be like a blind sucker punch," said Hillsborough teachers union president Jean Clements, who attended the protest but said she didn't organize it. "Everybody's going to feel very deflated."

Among other changes, the new law phases out so-called teacher tenure, the "due process" protections that teachers have against quick firing. It also ties teacher contracts and pay in large part to how well students perform on standardized tests.

The hope: that it will allow schools to maximize the in-school factor that matters most for student achievement — the effectiveness of the teacher.

Republican lawmakers who shepherded the legislation over fierce criticism from Democrats and teachers unions stressed that point again and again Thursday.

"Excellent teachers are the driving force behind student success," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

The new law will "foster a student-centered, world-class education system," said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville.

Critics, though, worry it's a risky undertaking with unanswered questions and high potential for unintended consequences.

There is serious debate among teacher quality experts as to whether test scores can be statistically crunched enough to accurately measure a teacher's contribution. Many of the standardized tests that will be needed have yet to be developed. And there is widespread skepticism that Florida, where teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country, can find the money to make performance pay meaningful.

"We're at a crossroads," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando teachers union. "You're going down a path where you can't see what's at the end."

The new law is the latest and biggest education policy change for Florida, a state that has made a national name for itself by pushing far and fast on that front. In many ways, tackling teacher quality is the last frontier in a brand of education reform that includes higher standards, high-stakes testing and more school choice.

An education foundation headed by former Gov. Jeb Bush floated the first version of the bill in 2009. Former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the second version last year after teachers rallied statewide.

Lawmakers who pushed through the third version suggested the three-year implementation period for many aspects will give the state ample time to find credible solutions for unanswered questions and to find the money.

If money isn't available, they noted, the law does not require school districts to change their pay rates at all, unlike a year ago when they would have been required to set aside 5 percent of their operating budgets to make the plan go.

In the meantime, there is certain to be frayed nerves as the state transitions from one system to the next — and as teachers wait for answers.

Bethany Elfering, a fifth-year guidance counselor at Seven Oaks Elementary in Wesley Chapel, predicted some of the changes, such as no more long-term contracts for new teachers, will dissuade people from entering the profession.

"I don't know as a college graduate going in with the changes that are being made that I could make the same career decisions I made," said Elfering, who left a corporate job to become an educator.

Karyn Huber, a fifth-year biology teacher at Tarpon Springs High, expected many teachers will consider leaving the profession, too.

But whether they do, she said, will depend on what happens in coming years, as the new tests and evaluation systems are put together that will be critical in determining which teachers are good and which ones aren't.

"We all feel the same. The big question is how," said Huber, 45, a clinical laboratory scientist before she turned to teaching. "I don't understand how they could put it into law without having that in place."

Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com.

What teachers can expect from SB 736

. As of July 1, all newly hired teachers will be given annual contracts for their entire careers. Currently, the vast majority of teachers receive tenure-like protections after three years of satisfactory evaluations.

. As of July 1, teacher layoff decisions must be made based on performance evaluations and not on seniority.

. Teachers' evaluation systems will rate them as highly effective, effective, needs improvement or unsatisfactory.

. Districts must develop performance-based pay schedules for all new teachers, in which student results account for at least 50 percent of the performance. The rest could be determined by teacher observation and other factors but would have to meet stringent new standards. Current teachers may enter the new pay scale and contract terms, but are not required to.

. Teachers working in hard-to-staff subject areas or schools will receive added pay.

Gov. Scott signs first bill: Sweeping teacher pay, tenure, evaluation overhaul 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 11:10pm]

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