Teachers and allies keep up the pressure for a veto of education bill

Gov. Charlie Crist arrives at the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg to visit with Leadership St. Petersburg members. He has seven days to weigh a teacher tenure bill.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times

Gov. Charlie Crist arrives at the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg to visit with Leadership St. Petersburg members. He has seven days to weigh a teacher tenure bill.

TALLAHASSEE — A hot-potato bill eliminating teacher tenure and tying pay to student test scores landed in Gov. Charlie Crist's hands Friday, tossed by legislators who debated it early into the morning.

Now, the waiting — and wheedling — begins.

Crist, who has until next Friday to sign or veto the bill, said he expects to take his time. If he does neither, the bill becomes law without his signature.

"I think it's too important to do anything hasty," he said. "So I want to take as much input as I can and review it, get fully briefed on it again."

The proposed law, which passed the House of Representatives 64-55 and the Senate 21-17, would base half a teacher's evaluation on progress that students make on tests, most of which have not yet been developed. If the students improve, educators could earn more.

The current system rewards teachers based on years of experience, advanced degrees and extra certification.

New teachers would be hired on annual contracts that would not automatically be renewed, which would wipe out tenure for new hires. Opponents say this will discourage new educators from coming to Florida.

As Crist studies the bill, he said he also intends to listen. Opponents plan to give him an earful over the next several days. Across Florida, teachers unions are mobilizing members, parents and others to flood Crist's office with calls and e-mails.

Just since Thursday afternoon, more than 9,000 e-mails had poured in. Crist has received more than 10,000 calls opposing the bill and at least 71 in support. Since the beginning of March, he had received more than 15,000 e-mails opposing the measure and at least 66 supporting.

Crist said he has gotten more reaction about this piece of legislation than he did in 2005, when as attorney general he was asked to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. He ended up resisting getting involved in the end-of-life issue.

At Pierce Middle School in Tampa, teachers mourned the passing of the bill by wearing black to school Friday.

Hillsborough has a seven-year exemption from the bill's requirements because the school system has been awarded a $100 million teacher effectiveness grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. But teachers there were vocal in opposition nonetheless.

"It honors the fact that we were totally neglected," said Aron Zions, an eighth-grade U.S. history teacher at Pierce.

"What hurts the most is that (lawmakers) didn't listen, didn't even take us to the table to hear our side," Zions said.

Nathan Sharf, a Pierce special needs teacher who retires at the end of this school year, said a student's performance can't be solely linked to a teacher. "Behavioral problems and a lack of parental support also impedes students' growth," he said.

At Pierce, many teachers have a mixture of special needs, non-English speaking and general education students in their classrooms, Zions said. And many of the teachers who would usually be willing to take on the challenge of teaching them would be wary under the new bill because of how it would affect their overall test scores, he said.

Pierce teachers said they will do their best to help influence Crist's decision, spending part of their spring break on the streets of Tampa spreading their message: "Veto SB 6."

Crist denied being worried about the political consequences of his decision, as he continues to wage a tough battle for a U.S. Senate seat.

A veto would still give lawmakers time to craft a bill that had more bipartisan support, and, possibly, cooperation from teachers. Education leaders in Florida consider a performance pay plan key to winning as much as $700 million in a competitive federal grant program. Support from the teachers unions would help the state's chances, too.

Some members of the Florida Education Association have suggested in strategy meetings and Facebook messages that the union's largely Democratic base change political affiliations and vote against supporters of the bill in upcoming GOP primaries.

FEA president Andy Ford said the union's leadership has not taken a position on the proposed voter switch. He estimated that 27 percent of the union's 140,000 members are Republican.

In Miami-Dade, school officials were bracing for the possibility of mass absenteeism Monday. Dozens of teachers voiced opposition to the bill on Facebook, and talked about a potential sickout in Miami-Dade. Within one hour Friday night, there were more than 60 comments posted on the issue.

Told of the protest rumor, Crist sounded both surprised and sympathetic.

"Wow, wow, that's incredible," he said. "If that happens Monday, I can certainly understand it," he added.

"While I'd rather have them in the classroom, there's a side of me that understands how they feel," Crist said. "I imagine it's born out of frustration, out of a hard time being heard in the Legislature, and I'm sympathetic to that side of it."

Crist, who was in his hometown of St. Petersburg and surrounding areas Friday, acknowledged getting lobbied within his own family. His father is former chairman of the Pinellas School Board and two of his three sisters have been schoolteachers. He would not reveal what decision they would like him to make, but said: "They're making very good suggestions from the heart."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet, Patricia Mazzei, Kathleen McGrory, Cristina Silva, Dan Sullivan and Kim Wilmath contributed to this report.

Teachers and allies keep up the pressure for a veto of education bill 04/09/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 12:34am]

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