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Teacher tenure bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk

TALLAHASSEE — A major law intended to reward the best teachers with better pay and weed out bad teachers won final approval in the Florida House on Wednesday, handing a victory to Republicans who pushed similar reforms through the Legislature last year only to be rebuffed by former Gov. Charlie Crist.

This time, the bill is headed to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, who will sign it as likely the first legislation of his administration.

But what makes teachers worthy of a pay raise — and how much more they would be paid — is still up in the air.

The bill stipulates that half a teacher's evaluation is to be based on student test scores, like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, known as FCAT. The other half will be up to school districts.

As for pay, the bill mandates that effective teachers receive the first and highest raises when a school district can afford them. But there's no indication of how much higher those salaries could be increased.

At a news conference celebrating the bill's passage, neither Scott nor Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, could answer the question of how much teachers should be paid. "More than they are currently," Haridopolos said, refusing to elaborate.

Said Scott: "There's no set answer for that. It depends on what we can afford, what other people are getting paid. So it's always relative."

The shortfall in the state's preK-12 education budget is at least $1.6 billion, according to Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who told the education committee he chairs that they will struggle to provide the same level of school funding in the next budget year.

The House voted 80-39 along strict party lines for Senate Bill 736, which will also wipe out so-called tenure in favor of one-year contracts for new teachers and do away with layoffs based on seniority. The Senate signed off on the bill last week.

The law marks the next phase of high-profile educational reforms that began more than a decade ago, with the creation of the FCAT and, later, former Gov. Jeb Bush's plan to grade schools based on students' performance on the exam.

The latest changes come as states, prodded by the federal government, have moved to measure teacher effectiveness by tying it to students' performance in the classroom. Last year, Florida received $700 million in competitive grant funding from the federal Race to the Top program, which requires states and school districts to revamp how they link student test scores and teacher pay.

The award came after Crist vetoed Senate Bill 6, a contentious proposal with similar reforms that prompted protests from teachers who said the law was rammed through the Legislature with little public input. Most school districts and many teachers unions later worked together on Race to the Top.

In their bill this year, Republican sponsors Sen. Stephen Wise of Jacksonville and Rep. Erik Fresen of Miami said they tried to make the reforms more palatable to critics. The new law leaves room to reward teachers who work in high-poverty schools or teach in subjects where there is a shortage. They can also earn more pay by having extra certification or advanced degrees in the field they teach.

And the pay-for-performance plan will only affect teachers hired after July 1. Current teachers can opt into the plan if they give up tenure.

"More teachers have said to us they want to be measured, they want to be recognized for their excellence," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, a New Port Richey Republican.

But Democrats argued the bill will create a funding hardship for school districts that have to come up with new ways to evaluate teachers. And annual contracts will make it difficult to attract and retain good teachers who will no longer have job security, they said.

"What type of message are we sending home to our teachers right now?" asked Rep. Betty Reed, a Tampa Democrat. "What type of message are we sending them — that we no longer need you?"

The sentiment was echoed by teachers and their local unions that fear already steep budget cuts. "The biggest problem with them is there's no money to go with any of this," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "And that's on top of the governor already cutting billions out of the budget for education."

Liza Johnson, 50, a veteran special education teacher at Calvin Hunsinger School in Clearwater, was back in Tallahassee on Tuesday campaigning against the bill, just like she did last year with Senate Bill 6. Johnson teaches second- and third-grade students diagnosed with emotional behavioral disorders and said she's baffled by how she would be evaluated given her students' academic and behavioral challenges.

In the House, like in the Senate, the bill's passing was never in doubt. Republicans hold veto-proof majorities and made teacher reform one of their priorities.

After 3 1/2 hours of debate, all Republicans voted for the bill and all Democrats against it, with one GOP member, Rep. Michael Bileca of Miami, absent.

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Rebecca Catalanello and Thomas Marshall contributed to this report.

Teacher tenure bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk 03/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 12:18am]
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