WESLEY CHAPEL — During his first few years in office, state Rep. Will Weatherford regularly demurred on Florida education issues.
Not on the committees, he'd say, referring calls to fellow Pasco County Republican Rep. John Legg, a school administrator serving on the requisite panels.
How things have changed.
These days, Weatherford has become the visible face of some of the state's most contentious education issues. Among them, he's spearheading legislation to scale back the popular 2002 class-size amendment and leading the charge to expand corporate tax credit scholarships (known to many as vouchers).
Weatherford also penned letters to several Florida newspapers last month touting the state's effort to win money from the federal government's Race to the Top education grant, which seeks to impose performance pay on teachers, among other reforms. The teachers who opposed the application, he wrote, were putting political interests ahead of educational ones.
"I'm not going out of my way to go after issues that they (teachers) oppose," said Weatherford, the incoming chairman of the House Education Policy Council who is in line to become House speaker in 2012. "I'm just doing what I think is right."
Many of the state's educators beg to differ.
They blitzed the newspapers — and Weatherford's office — with responses to his Race to the Top missives. Even those that said he made valid points about the need for change suggested that he and other lawmakers are getting there the wrong way.
The state needs more trial programs to learn more about what can work in practice, rather than just in theory, they said. Talking to teachers and others in the field before setting the rules would help, they added. And whatever emerges needs to be fair, they said.
"Anyone wanting to implement a merit pay system in Florida … has a rough road ahead," said retired Seminole County computer technology teacher Bill Gaught, who volunteered to help Weatherford write a plan that teachers might accept. "The issue comes down to fairness."
And that concept can be elusive.
"Many of the reforms that are on the table now, if they were to be implemented fairly, I think they do have great potential," said Jasmine Ulmer, a Union County reading teacher who serves on the state's new task force on teacher quality.
Getting to fair, she said, is "one of the questions I hope we spend a lot of time discussing (with the task force). … Fair means different things to different people."
Laurie Pellito, human resources coordinator in Hernando County, has overseen her district's attempts to implement past merit pay plans imposed by lawmakers to little success. She wrote to Weatherford after his letter raised concerns that the newest effort he's touting look to repeat the same mistakes of STAR and MAP, the two most recent initiatives.
"I am not opposed to doing it, but we don't know how to do it," Pellito said of performance pay.
She suggested that a handful of districts should pilot the initiative to help identify problems and solutions, as well as to answer questions such as which teachers should be included and how to rate them.
"I think what people are opposed to is, they have no idea how they are really going to be judged," Pellito said. "I wish they would think about it first rather than force us to implement it" without guidance.
Weatherford welcomed the criticism.
He acknowledged he's relatively new to the discussion, which he deemed critical to Florida's future, and said the teachers' letters and calls have helped him understand the issues more fully.
"It's not a personal thing. It's a big issue worthy of having serious thought and disagreement over," Weatherford said.
That's especially true, he added, if the end result is ongoing improvement of Florida's public school system, which he said has gotten better but still has a way to go.
"The most important thing is, we agree that we value the importance of the education of our children," Weatherford said. "We may have some disagreements over how we get there, but at the end of the day, we all want to get to the same place."
The Race to the Top is one potential way to get some extra money to support needed education reforms at a time when resources are limited, Weatherford said. Getting teachers on board is critical, he continued, and that's why he took such a public stance supporting Florida's application and criticizing the Florida Education Association's opposition.
"I want the reform and the money," Weatherford said. "But people have to be brought into the reform. That's why we have to have this debate."
Still, for some teachers, at least, he's got a hard sell ahead.
"I don't know what the answer is," said Robert Marsh, a Land O'Lakes High School history teacher. "But the way they are going about it will cause a lot of pain. … They're sucking the joy right out of doing this, and this is a fun job."
Fifty-nine of the state's 67 school districts including Pasco agreed by the Jan. 12 deadline to participate in the Race to the Top reforms if Florida wins the federal grant. Only five teachers unions, not including the United School Employees of Pasco, signed the agreements.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.