TAMPA — Teacher tenure may be an endangered species in Florida after passage last week of a Senate bill that would tie job security to student performance on tests.
Only Hillsborough County gained a potential exemption, thanks to the $100 million teacher effectiveness grant it won from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Legislators said they want to let that seven-year reform effort run its course.
But struggling teachers may be no safer in Hillsborough than in other districts.
In their application last year for the Gates grant, Hillsborough officials told the foundation they expected to fire at least 5 percent of the district's 8,500 tenured teachers each year for low performance, once a new evaluation system is established. That would amount to around 425 tenured teachers dismissed or counseled out annually, nearly two for each school in the district.
Hillsborough vowed to do a better job of enforcing existing tenure rules, and remove larger numbers of teachers if they couldn't show adequate student gains. With more precise evaluations, they predicted rating at least 15 percent of all teachers as "performing well below expectations" and in need of further support or dismissal.
By contrast, Hillsborough fired just one tenured teacher and denied tenure to 55 last year.
"A major outcome of the revamped teacher evaluation system is the removal of under-performing teachers, both tenured and non-tenured," the district wrote in its application.
District officials haven't mentioned such projections in teacher forums about the Gates grant, referring only to the "very small number" they expect to dismiss under the new system.
"Of all the numbers that you find in that report, that one is the least hard and fast," spokesman Stephen Hegarty said, referring to the 5 percent termination projection. "Because we wanted to be as specific as we could be in the proposal, we had to come up with some sort of figure.
"We don't anticipate that it's going to be that high, because we're going to do a lot of things to support teachers," he added.
Until now, dismissing teachers for cause has been considered nearly impossible, both in Florida and nationally. Teacher contracts have provided layers of protection, with districts required to carefully document problems and to give teachers ample time to correct them.
And many of the reforms proposed in Hillsborough must still be formalized through negotiations with the teachers union.
Providing extra support for teachers, and a more detailed evaluation, lies at the heart of the district's Gates plans.
Starting this fall, every teacher in the district will be rated and supported by a full-time peer evaluator. New teachers will see those mentors more frequently, beginning with intensive summer training.
Those ratings by peers and principals will make up 60 percent of a teacher's evaluation, with student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test or end-of-course exams making up the remainder.
New teachers' pay will be based on those ratings by 2013, while veterans can opt to stick with the existing salary scale.
"Nothing about tenure will change," teachers union president Jean Clements told her building representatives at a February meeting. "We will still have tenure, with all the same protections and provisions we currently have."
In other districts, 50 percent of teachers' pay would be linked to student performance under Florida's proposed reforms, which are pending in the House of Representatives. And new teachers would be placed on annual contracts, rather than given the "tenure" protection of multiple-year deals.
Hillsborough officials lobbied hard to avoid those fast-track changes and stick with their gradual Gates reforms, and Republican Sens. John Thrasher of St. Augustine and Victor Crist of Tampa sponsored the exemption.
"They are on the right track, and I hope one of these days they will see the wisdom of Senate Bill 6 when it gets implemented and hopefully move toward it," Thrasher said.
Hillsborough officials said in their Gates application that the new system would have to prove itself, flagging teachers in need of further support and dismissing those who can't make the grade.
Under the old system, 99.5 percent of teachers in 2007-08 earned a "satisfactory" or "outstanding" rating, and one-third received a perfect score.
From 2006-07 to last year, a total of six tenured teachers were dismissed, along with 139 nontenured teachers, Hegarty said.
In the future, more beginning teachers will be pushed into a fourth, probationary year and given extra support before earning tenure, Gates project director David Steele has said.
Union officials say they hope the new evaluation system and mentoring will allow most struggling teachers to keep their jobs.
"We acknowledge there is a certain percentage of poor teachers in our ranks," said Nick Whitman, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "But if someone has a mentor next to them from the first day of teaching, there will be fewer opportunities for someone to be counseled out or terminated."
Sue Anderson, a teacher for special-needs students at the Dorothy Thomas Special Day School, agreed.
"My experience has been that most teachers are really doing the best they can and doing a great job," she said. "There may be a couple who I wished had better skills. And if this thing works right, they'll be coached and mentored, and they'll improve."
Anderson said she was excited at the prospect of meeting with a peer evaluator to hone her teaching, after 20 years in the classroom. But between Gates and the state tenure bill, she said, many of her colleagues are nervous.
"So many people are getting scared and looking for other options already," she said. "They're not feeling confident of their future."
Andrew Jacobs, an English teacher at Jefferson High School, was initially taken aback to learn of Hillsborough's projections for teacher dismissals. But upon reflection, he said they weren't necessarily ominous.
"I can certainly acknowledge there may be some teachers out there who are tenured and just asleep at the switch and not doing their jobs," he said. "It all comes down to what criteria you're judging these teachers by."
Given a choice between Hillsborough's Gates reforms and life under tenure reform in another district, Jacobs said he would stay right where he is.
"It at least gives us some control as a district over our fate," he said.
Times staff writer Cristina Silva contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.