Protests reached a fever pitch Thursday as the Florida House of Representatives approved a controversial bill tying teacher pay to student performance.
While opponents across the state turned their eyes to Gov. Charlie Crist — and their last hope for a veto — school district leaders braced for the bill's long-term impact on testing, budgets and contract negotiations.
"It's going to be major," said Heather Fiorentino, superintendent of Pasco County schools.
The outcome was clear going in, but House lawmakers still debated the bill until nearly 2:30 a.m. Friday. After more than nine hours, they voted 64 to 55 to overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, compensated and fired in Florida. The bill would base half of a teacher's evaluation on students' performance on tests while the current system focuses on years of experience and advanced degrees.
"It's about rewarding good teachers," said Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill.
Eleven Republicans joined Democrats in voting no. The measure passed the Senate last month in a 21-17 vote.
Speaking to college students Thursday at USF St. Petersburg, Crist would not say what he will do when the bill lands on his desk. "I don't know is the honest answer," he said.
As the governor chatted with students, more than 500 teachers in his home county of Pinellas picketed at three intersections, sending him a pointed message.
"How bad does he want the U.S. Senate?" said Ann Preus, a 26-year teacher at Blanton Elementary, referring to Crist's bid for federal office. "We don't need more tests. Please."
Crist's initial support for the bill seems to have waned, prompting a backlash from some Republican leaders Thursday.
"He's told me he's going to sign it, and I take him at his word," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, Senate sponsor.
Crist insisted that he simply let people know he was favorable to SB 6, but, "I never gave guarantees."
Thousands of educators, parents and students around the state have picketed, e-mailed, called and traveled to Tallahassee to vent their ire.
As teacher groups continued to urge Floridians Thursday to "Call. Email. Facebook. Twitter. Don't give up," observers touched upon an undercurrent: Crist's bid for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has been all but endorsed by former governor Jeb Bush.
Critics believe the tenets of SB 6 — teacher performance pay, evaluations based on student test results and elimination of continuing contracts — come straight from the Bush handbook. And they're being run through the Legislature similarly to the push for Bush's A-Plus plan of 1999. And by the same legislator: Thrasher.
If Crist signs the tenure bill, local school district leaders will have to immediately plunge into a number of thorny issues — rewriting of salary schedules, revising evaluations, developing course exams and finding the money to pay for it all.
That means hammering out negotiations with teachers associations who are angered by the measure. Districts also would have to scramble to draw up new salary schedules since any teacher hired on or after July 1 would be the first to go on annual contracts.
The state has said it will lead the charge on defining learning gains and developing the new evaluations that will determine pay increases.
State education officials said they will look at New York City, Houston and Tennessee, all of which tie teacher performance to student test scores, as well as research from the University of Wisconsin, for examples.
In Pinellas, district leaders planned to present a new teacher evaluation to the School Board next month but it may have to be adjusted if the bill becomes law.
Also ahead for school districts: tests. A lot more tests.
SB 6 requires each district to find or create a standardized test called an end-of-course exam for every subject in every grade. Some subjects and grades are already covered by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test; some by standardized tests like Advanced Placement exams.
But the vast majority of subjects are not covered. In Pinellas middle school grades alone, there are 14 foreign language courses that would appear to need separate end-of-course exams.
Many districts would need hundreds of new tests. And they'd be high-stakes, with teacher salaries and future employment riding on the outcome, beginning in 2014-15.
Hillsborough County schools, exempt from SB 6 because of their participation in a separate grant program, have developed semester exams since the 1980s. Officials there say it takes three years and about $10,000 to create each exam, which then must be regularly updated and validated as curriculum standards change.
"This is an enormous task for anyone to embark on," said Sam Whitten, the assessment supervisor for Hillsborough schools.
The bill calls for the state to create a pool for tests and questions. But it's a big question mark whether all districts could get up to speed in time for the 2014-15 deadline set by SB 6.
Finding the money to pay for it all may be the toughest challenge. Starting in 2011-2012, districts must set aside 5 percent of their budgets to fund the new mandates.
Hernando Classroom Teachers Association president Joe Vitalo is sure it would be more bad news for teachers. "No matter which way you juggle it, pay cuts are there," he said.
Crist will have seven days to decide, but already opponents promise legal constitutional challenges.
"Ideally, before damage is done … the courts can step up and deal with some of these issues," said Ron Meyer, a lawyer for the Florida Education Association.
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Caryn Baird and staff writers Kameel Stanley and Tony Marrero and Miami Herald reporter Hannah Sampson contributed to this report. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614.