Legislation to radically alter Florida teachers' contracts, evaluations and pay this spring ignited a furious statewide debate like no other in recent Florida political history, likely upending the U.S. Senate race in its wake.
Pasco County state Rep. John Legg sponsored the measure at the heart of the debate.
The Legislature also took steps to change the high school experience of every Florida teen, toughening the graduation requirements and eliminating FCAT tests in favor of end-of-course exams.
Legg shepherded that bill to the governor's desk, too.
A fairly low-key charter school teacher-administrator who prefers consensus to controversy, Legg nonetheless found himself at the center of some of the most contentious philosophical discussions at the Capitol this session. He spoke via e-mail with the St. Petersburg Times about his role.
You ended up with some of the most high-profile pieces of legislation this session. How did that happen?
Being a middle school teacher, administrator and chair of pre-K-12 policy committee, we were in a unique position to provide guidance on major legislation. Many of the pieces of legislation, such as the FCAT reform and civics, have been important issues for me for many years.
How much effort went into making the teacher bill [Senate Bill 6] acceptable enough to gain passage in both houses?
We spent many hours working with the Senate, working with the commissioner of education, and working with other stakeholders to draft a bill that rewards our hardworking teachers.
What was your thinking after Gov. Crist rejected the measure?
It was unfortunate that after having the governor's support for the bill, having his commissioner of education work with us for many months in drafting the legislation and having his education policy chief testify in committee in support of the bill, that he changed his mind at the last minute. However, he is the governor and has his own reasons for changing his mind.
Do you think the stars will align for another effort again? Or are the critics who say its time has passed right?
Rewarding teachers for their hard work will continue to be a goal. From the White House to the school house, we all agree that the system we have in place today is not sustainable. The system today is blatantly unfair. It does not allow any meaningful recognition of the achievements of our hard working teachers.
Just a few days after the veto, Crist signed the end-of-course exams bill [Senate Bill 4] into law. Did his SB 6 veto make you think he might not?
Yes, he was using the same language of support for end-of-course exams as he was with teacher quality.
You first brought up the idea behind that bill three or four years ago. What took it so long to get it into law?
One of my key issues in running for office was to reform high school FCAT and standards. We researched what other states were doing with regard to course requirements and testing — we evaluated their successes and failures. We reviewed what research showed to be the most academically sound and effective approaches to course requirements and testing; we held numerous committee hearings and heard from national experts; and we worked with the Department of Education for almost two years refining the most appropriate first steps while keeping in mind our budgetary restraints.
Now you're sitting on the education budget conference committee. That's got to be tough in another weak economic year. How do you balance the needs with the money?
It is very difficult, but I have one guiding principle. Put more funds into the classroom.
As you look back on the session so far, how do you view it? Successful? Stressful? Mixed bag?
VERY successful for the students, teachers and the future of Florida. We have made civics education a priority in middle school, reformed the high school FCAT and made Florida's standards competitive not only nationally, but internationally. We have created more educational opportunities for our most at-risk, vulnerable students. While teacher quality did not become law, the dialogue has been established and we all agree that we should reward our effective teachers for their hard work.
What do you predict as the main issues for the remaining week?
Working to ensure that we provide our classroom teachers with the resources needed for them to continue their hard work.
Do you have any plans to shore up existing language on teacher evaluations and other pieces of SB 6 during this session, as you suggested earlier?
It is current law. I am confident that the State Board of Education will be reviewing it since it was highlighted during the debate and many board members were not aware that it was current law.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.