WASHINGTON, D.C. — He's still mad, pounding-on-the-table mad.
And when the talk turned Tuesday to reforming Florida's public schools, that anger bubbled right to the surface for Sen. John Thrasher, the architect of last year's failed tenure-reform bill. He took aim squarely at teachers' unions.
"There is no way in our state right now that the dadgum unions are going to agree with this kind of stuff," Thrasher told the crowd at the third annual education conference organized by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "So you either bring them to the table and tell them what you're going to do, or you run over them."
Florida's fingerprints were all over the Foundation for Excellence in Education gathering, which has become a rallying point for conservative education reformers. In his opening remarks, Bush pointed to states that have followed the Florida model he launched more than a decade ago.
Arizona, Indiana and Louisiana have all adopted a system of awarding letter grades to schools based on student achievement, from A to F. The first two and Utah also have ended the practice of promoting third-graders who can't read.
"I wish every state adopted a harder-edged policy of no tolerance for functional illiteracy," Bush said, "but third grade is a great place to start."
He also urged education leaders to follow Florida's lead in adopting tough high school graduation requirements in math and science, and start overhauling how they evaluate, pay and retain teachers.
That's what Florida's Senate Bill 6 aimed to do. Vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist last spring, the bill would have tied teacher pay to student test scores and ended the teachers' tenure protections.
Bush later said that unions haven't been helpful or supportive of such changes.
"If they were, it would accelerate education change in ways that we can't even imagine," he said. "The union, not the teachers, is one of the principle resistors to moving to a child-centered system."
Some at the conference, which included a large contingent of Florida legislators, members of the state Board of Education and former education commissioner John Winn, noted instances of collaborative efforts.
Hillsborough superintendent MaryEllen Elia said her district's far-reaching efforts with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to overhaul teacher evaluation and pay would not be possible without union participation.
"This entire plan was developed with our teachers union," Elia said. "I can tell you that we work very hard and very collaboratively with our teachers."
Colorado Democratic state Sen. Mike Johnston said his state pushed through an aggressive tenure-reform bill with support from the American Federation of Teachers, the nation's second-largest union.
And Deborah Gist, Rhode Island's commissioner of education, said her state's new teacher evaluation system couldn't have been approved without union help. "They're right there with us, we're building it together," Gist said.
But others offered tales of bruising fights with the rank and file.
"My strong suggestion is go right to the belly of the beast," said Indiana superintendent Tony Bennett. "You have to go out in your communities, look teachers in the eye, and say this is what we're for. Do you have a better idea?"
Thrasher, the chairman of Florida's Republican Party, praised Hillsborough's collaborative efforts and said he didn't rule out the idea of talking with reform-minded unions.
"I'm willing to sit down with them and listen to them, but I'm not willing to compromise the principles that I believe in, that are necessary to take this issue to the next level," said Thrasher of St. Augustine.
This time, Thrasher said, he has a friend in the governor's mansion. And legislators are fired up to finish the job. "We have a governor now that just got elected who believes in what we're doing and is ready to sign the bill when it gets to his desk," he said, referring to Gov.-elect Rick Scott. "Rest assured, our bill will be as strong this year as it was last year."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.