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SB 6 veto doesn't stifle Florida's debate over merit pay

Gov. Charlie Crist killed Senate Bill 6. But the battle over the teaching profession in Florida is just getting started.

It will be an election issue this year. It will be on the front burner in next year's legislative session. And there's no doubt it will be in the political spotlight for years to come.

The reason isn't just political.

In Florida and across the country, teacher accountability is the next frontier in school reform. Research shows that within schools, teachers are the biggest variable in how students perform. So policymakers in Florida and elsewhere will keep trying to change the profession in ways that may — if done right — more quickly boot bad teachers and amplify the power of good ones.

"The idea of recognizing and rewarding effective teaching is such a compelling idea that I think it survives election cycles," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. But "the how will be hotly debated."

SB 6 was arguably more ambitious than any teacher accountability plan in the country. It would have strongly tied teacher salaries to student test scores and eroded special protections that shield teachers from being easily fired. But in the end, furious teachers convinced Crist it was too much too fast, with too little money and too many unanswered questions.

SB 6 probably won't be resurrected by the end of the legislative session April 30. But what happens next depends a lot on politics.

November is critical.

Sharp lines over SB 6 have already been drawn in the governor's race. Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum fully backed the bill. His opponent in the primary, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, strongly opposed it, as did Democratic candidate and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

If Dockery or Sink wins, expect next year's version of SB 6 to either be a lot different, or dead on arrival. But if McCollum wins, look for Son of SB 6 to be the spittin' image of its daddy.

Then again, a McCollum victory will put teachers on high alert. There's zero trust between them and the lawmakers who tried to push SB 6. And they've been empowered by the rallies, sickouts and other mass mobilizations that helped sway Crist.

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said Florida teachers are going to view any proposals by the same people as anti-teacher. "It's going to be challenging to climb back up this hill," he said.

Hess supported SB6 because he thought Florida needed to seize the opportunity to change the teaching profession before the unions dug in. But he said the bill had flaws that gave critics ammo, including questions about the development of new standardized tests and measuring the learning gains of students.

"There's a whole bunch of reasonable questions about how you use this data," Hess said. "The bill was so ambitious, it didn't necessarily sort it out."

But even many critics concede the bill tried to tackle legitimate issues.

Plenty of researchers question paying teachers more for seniority and academic degree level, when there isn't much correlation between those things and how well students do. There are real concerns about how teacher salary scales — with low starting salaries that stay low for 15 years or more — may be keeping or pushing good people out of teaching.

And there's no doubt high-poverty schools have big problems with teacher turnover — which clearly hurts students — and that teacher unions in many Florida districts (Hillsborough being an exception) have resisted efforts to pay those teachers more as an incentive to stay.

Those issues will be magnets for future debates.

"Teachers are feeling put upon, but there are research reasons for that," said Raegen Miller, an education researcher at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that supports an overhaul of teacher pay and tenure. "It's not that politically we've decided to sock it to teachers.

After Crist's veto, state Board of Education member Roberto Martinez immediately called for a series of inclusive workshops on the teaching profession.

"It's the teacher that counts the most," Martinez said. "You can have great standards, a great accountability system, a great pre-K program. But if you have bad teachers, or we don't fully support the teachers, then we're wasting every year of their (the students') lives."

After years of inaction, districts and unions recently began hashing out plans for performance pay and related changes, but on a much smaller scale than envisioned by SB 6. A new state law, quietly passed last year, requires they do so for teachers in small numbers of low-performing schools.

But even before SB 6, some districts were planning to expand on that mandate, at their own initiative. Pinellas, for example, is molding a new teacher evaluation system tied to performance pay that it hopes eventually to take districtwide.

In Pasco, district and union officials were set to work on the new requirements when the state application for a federal Race to the Top grant emerged, followed by SB 6. The latter two initiatives had more far-reaching mandates on the same issues.

"That's been one of the problems," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco. "Every time we turn around they thrust something on us before we've had the chance to comply with whatever the prior responsibility was."

This may have been lost in the SB 6 debate, too: Many teachers say they're willing to try new approaches.

"We're ready for change, but don't just tell us what to do," said Joe Watson, music teacher at Pasco's Oakstead Elementary.

"I'm personally open to anything that would encourage teachers to be the best they can be," said Liz Wiszowaty, a special education teacher at Eisenhower Elementary in Clearwater. "But it has to be a very specific, pre-thought criteria. Not an afterthought."

With SB 6, Wiszowaty said she worried how learning gains would be measured for her students — and how she would be compared to other teachers. There may be fair ways to do that, she said, but because the bill was put on such a fast track, she and other teachers didn't get any specific answers.

"It was 'trust me, we'll tell you later,' " she said. "It's not very comforting (to hear that) when your livelihood is on the line."

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

SB 6 veto doesn't stifle Florida's debate over merit pay 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 11:13pm]

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