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Teachers union leads the fight against SB 6

TALLAHASSEE — As a Democratic bulwark in a state governed by Republicans, Florida's main teachers union is used to political attacks. But the current fight over Senate Bill 6 threatens its very survival.

A veto from Gov. Charlie Crist on the Republican-led effort to dramatically overhaul how teachers are paid and recertified would be heralded as the union's most significant victory in years.

Conversely, Crist's signature on the bill would trigger an immediate power shift that would threaten the union's clout.

So the Florida Education Association is leading an urgent battle to defeat the legislation.

"When teachers get kicked, they usually rally together," said Andy Ford, president of the FEA, one of Tallahassee's most powerful lobbying groups with more than 140,000 members, including teachers, school janitors and bus drivers.

The so-called teacher tenure bill proposes dramatically revamping Florida's public schools by linking teacher recertification and pay increases to student performance. It also would give the Department of Education and school administrators unprecedented authority over policy and employment decisions traditionally negotiated at the local level by school boards and union leaders.

"This is pure politics about getting at us," Ford said. "They are setting up the (state education) commissioner to be the most powerful bureaucrat in the state of Florida."

Members are lobbying Crist, who has until Friday to sign or veto the bill. Contributions once set aside to influence November elections were used toward a series of statewide television commercials and mailers attacking the legislation. Republican lawmakers were inundated with protesters at their district offices before a House vote last week.

On the other side stands a handful of influential union foes, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, who has thrown the weight of his education foundation behind the bill, and Republican party chairman John Thrasher, the measure's sponsor in the Senate. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, a Republican bastion, began airing a commercial last month that paints union lobbyists as overpaid "bullies" who have intimidated students into protesting the legislation.

"They are most concerned about their union bargaining and their union negotiating, so they are saying whatever misinformation they can to convince teachers that this bill is something it is not," said chamber president Mark Wilson.

Ford bills the legislation as payback for the union's victory against Bush's statewide private-school voucher program in 2006, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled the scholarship program violated the state Constitution's promise of a "uniform system of free public schools." The union also succeeded against Bush and other Republican leaders in a 2002 campaign to limit class sizes.

"We have a long history of standing up to the power structure when it is wrong," said Ford, a former kindergarten teacher from Duval County.

Members pay $200 in annual fees, which total roughly $28 million.

The union portrays itself as nonpartisan, but its resources have been disproportionately used to promote Democratic causes. The union has given at least $979,771 directly to the Florida Democratic Party since 2002 and thousands more to Democratic candidates. It gave $5,500 to the state Republican party in that same period.

Kenneth Blankenship, a world history teacher at Land O'Lakes High School in Pasco County, said the union fights for employee benefits and fields policy questions from confused teachers.

"FEA is our voice in Tallahassee," he said. "They are going above and beyond."

But critics say the union hurts teachers.

"They have a history of providing information to teachers that is in the best light of the association, not necessarily in the best interest of the teachers they are serving," said Patricia Levesque, who has long sparred with the union as Bush's deputy chief of staff for education and most recently as executive director of Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future.

Many of Florida's 191,000 teachers are not union members.

William Dukes, an agriculture teacher at John A. Ferguson Senior High School in Miami, said he attended one local organizing meeting early in his career.

"There was a lot of grandstanding," he said. "That one experience left a bad taste in my mouth."

But no other group rivals the union's ability to organize teachers.

On a recent morning, more than 50 teachers from hometowns small and large traveled to the union's Tallahassee office for a strategy meeting.

Ford played a commercial on the bill that warned: "When your child has a problem, you'll have to contact Tallahassee."

"We try to make things better for kids, these people down the street don't care," Ford said to the cheering room. "It's about politicians and money."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or csilva@sptimes.com.

Fast facts

Where it stands

Senate Bill 6 was sent to Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday after being passed by the House and Senate. Crist has seven days to act on bills sent during the session, so his deadline is Friday.

Teachers union leads the fight against SB 6 04/12/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 13, 2010 1:30am]

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