Politically, education reform feud in legislature echoes 1999 FCAT fight

TALLAHASSEE — For many educators across the state, the Republican-led Legislature's proposed overhaul of Florida schools is creating a wave of deja vu.

Florida's last dramatic education shift in 1999 was also pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush. It, too, was hurried through the legislative process by Republican leaders who used buzz words like accountability and performance measurements. Both efforts saw teacher unions and Democrats square off against big business and conservatives.

But this time, critics say, it's worse. This time it's personal.

"They are going after the individual classroom teacher," said Ceresta Smith, a Miami language arts teacher who drove to Tallahassee on Wednesday to beg Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the legislation, which would link teacher pay and recertification to student learning gains.

In many ways, the so-called teacher tenure bill, SB6, is a natural expansion of Bush's A+ Plan, which called for grading and rewarding schools based largely on student test results.

"Accountability is a big part of it," said Sen. John Thrasher, the bill's sponsor.

Thrasher, who championed Bush's reforms as House Speaker in 1999, said critics of his legislation should be reassured by the evolution and success of the A+ Plan, which was repeatedly tweaked at the behest of educators concerned about the initial one-size-fits-all model.

"Our bill could do the same," he said.

But such a rationale offers little solace to teachers critical of more required tests.

"Teaching is an art," said Wendi Werther, an earth science teacher at Miami Palmetto High School. "They are trying to make it a science."

Others say the A+ Plan offered specific guidelines, unlike the teacher tenure bill, which would give vast oversight authority to the state Department of Education to create the rules that will make it all a reality.

"Tweak is when you find problems later on that were unanticipated or they develop," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, a Republican from Miami who voted against the legislation in the Senate last month. "Not ignore how to do something and we will figure out how to do it later."

Bush rolled out his sweeping education platform during the gubernatorial campaign, immediately inciting the fury of teacher unions and superintendents.

The Legislature eventually approved most of his ideas, allowing Florida for the first time to give public dollars, or vouchers, to students attending the worst public schools so that they could transfer to private schools.

The plan was considered a predecessor to President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind Act and is touted by conservatives as a national education model.

Florida's graduation rate increased from 60 percent in 1999 to 79 percent in 2009, according to the state Department of Education.

Florida saw a rise in "A" schools from 202 in 1999 to 1,822 in 2009. Conversely, "F" schools decreased from 76 in 1999 to 44 in 2009.

But many teachers criticized the unprecedented focus on student test scores.

These days, even Republican leaders say Florida has outgrown the broad Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test and are pushing to replace it with subject specific exams.

Thrasher's bill would require school districts to create end-of-course exams. Those results could determine the length of a teacher's career and whether they earn pay increases.

It's unclear what Crist will do, though a decision could come as early as this afternoon.

A former state education commissioner, Crist praised Bush's education plan in an interview this week.

"I think that we should have accountability. I think that we do need to take a measure of what happens in the classroom," he said, adding, "The trend that we have been on has reaped very good benefits for the students of Florida."

But Crist has also portrayed himself as a friend to teachers.

Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, asked Crist to veto the bill this week. The association supported the A+ Plan, but Blanton said Thrasher's legislation is an unfunded mandate that does not recognize the breadth of a teacher's accomplishments.

"We have never opposed part of a teacher's evaluation being on how they did on a test," Blanton said. "But it should not be the overriding issue of how a teacher is evaluated."

Times/Herald staff writer Hannah Sampson contributed to this report. Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Politically, education reform feud in legislature echoes 1999 FCAT fight 04/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 12:27am]

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