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Protests are backdrop in legislative vote to reshape Florida's education system

TALLAHASSEE — After 13 years as a public school teacher, Kenneth Blankenship's professional future may soon rest on the academic prowess of his teenage students.

"I can work my heart out to provide them a quality education, but if they don't go home and read, if they don't do their homework, if they don't study, they aren't going to learn," said Blankenship, who teaches world history at Land O'Lakes High School in Pasco County.

He joined dozens of public teachers from across the state to denounce a sweeping education measure in Tallahassee Monday being pushed by Republican leaders. They wore buttons that read, "I teach, I vote" and red shirts during a heated 8-hour hearing where not one teacher spoke in favor of the legislation.

But the passionate testimony did little to stop the controversial bill, which has been singled out as priority for Republican lawmakers angling to ram it through quickly. The House Education Policy Council's 12-5 vote Monday fell along party lines.

The bill is the most dramatic overhaul of Florida's public school in years and has ignited a fierce battle between conservative lawmakers and education allies. It would place all new teachers on annual contracts, link raises and professional certification for teachers to student learning gains and require school districts to divert five percent of their funding back to the state to pay for the program.

Students would be subject to more tests, requiring school districts to establish and fund end-of-course exams for each subject area and grade level.

Opponents argue the bill would further diminish local education dollars, create new hurdles for districts struggling to raise achievement, and chase away dedicated teachers because state would lack job stability.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the Republican Party, pushed the bill through the Senate last month and House speaker Larry Cretul has spoke against all potential amendments because that would require another Senate vote, where the plan barely passed in a 21-17 vote. The House is expected to vote on the bill this week.

Proponents said it will make successful teachers wealthier and weed out ineffective ones.

House sponsor John Legg, R-Port Richey, said his high school daughter had been assigned, "some real stinker of teachers" over the years because schools cannot fire bad ones more easily.

The bill would reform the firing process and reward teachers who help students learn, he said. "The person we want to value most is the student."

House leaders also sailed forward a bill Monday to establish standardized state algebra, chemistry and biology tests for high school students, which would replace the FCAT.

Gov. Charlie Crist has said he would sign both bills, but has not campaigned to do away with teacher tenure.

The meeting drew overflowing crowds, and nearly eight hours were set aside for public comments and legislative debate.

"We have worked very hard to make sure that both sides will be heard today," said Will Weatherford, chair of the council.

Behind the scenes, however, Cretul took pains to shape the voting process, temporarily adding Majority Leader Adam Hasner to the committee, guaranteeing one more vote for his side.

Still, despite the party push, a growing number of moderate Republicans have come out against the measure.

Rep. Faye Culp, a GOP lawmaker representing a moderate Tampa suburban district, sided with Democrats on for a handful of amendments that sought to protect teacher certification and reward teachers who seek higher degrees. She eventually voted for the bill, but warned: "If it does not change, I will be voting no on the House floor."

Aron Zions, a Republican teacher frustrated that none of the amendments passed, chided his fellow party members.

"You're not going to listen to what I have to say," said Zions, a middle school history teacher from Tampa. "You're going to go through and vote the way you want to because of the party.''

To soothe educators' concerns, Department of Education Commissioner Eric Smith said his staff would work with local school boards and teachers to establish new performance measures that take into account variables such as socioeconomics.

While procedural rules prohibit the public for making any noise during committee meetings, protesters shouted in opposition twice, prompting Weatherford to call for security guards. One critic was shown the door as he hollered, "This is such a farce."

The state school board association and a handful of teacher unions trashed the bill. Public school teachers offered personal tales of professional woe.

Hernando County economics and government teacher Gregory Champagne said teachers are being set up for failure. "When we can squeeze no more water out of the rock, there's no way for teachers to reap rewards."

After speaking to the panel, Champagne, who is also a minister, said his concerns have prompted some prayers.

"I'm concerned that a lot of good teachers are going to leave," he said. "I'm concerned that a lot of good teachers are not going to enter the profession. And that once we decimate the teacher corps, it will take a generation to rebuild."

More than 75 opponents came out against HB7189 during a heated public hearing Monday. Only four people spoke in favor of the legislation.

"What the bill is going to do is raise teacher salaries across the state," said Patricia Levesque, executive director for former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.

"7189 provides no money, little time, and no meaningful collaboration with teachers," said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough County teachers union.

"It's a slap in the face to teachers who have dedicated their lives to Florida's public schoolchildren," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association

The legislation you're considering today is very much in the mainstream of education reform in the United States," said Arthur Rothkopf, senior vice president, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Protests are backdrop in legislative vote to reshape Florida's education system 04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 5, 2010 9:39pm]
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