TALLAHASSEE — A bill that would overhaul so-called teacher tenure and salaries swept through the Florida Senate Thursday, but even its most ardent supporters admitted it still must clear a key hurdle: how to pay for it.
The bill, whose House companion will be debated during two marathon sessions next week, would require principals to begin evaluating teachers in 2014 based on their students' performance on high-stakes tests and on other criteria school districts have yet to develop. Creating those assessments will take time and money from districts already bracing for painful cuts as the state tries to close a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.
"I want money to be put into this bill," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, an Ormond Beach Republican who voted for the proposal and remained optimistic on future funding:
But the outlook, at least for the upcoming year, is not encouraging. Next year's property tax collections for schools statewide could be nearly $217 million lower when compared to this year's budget, if the current tax rate remains the same, according to the latest state estimates.
Moody's, the credit rating agency, issued a recent report saying Gov. Rick Scott's budget is "credit negative" for schools and warned cuts could require layoffs and "seriously impede" school districts from implementing class-size reductions.
During the Senate debate Thursday, Republicans and Democrats questioned funding for the bill, which will also set annual — instead of three-year — contracts for new teachers and end the long-standing practice of basing layoffs on seniority.
Sen. Stephen Wise, the Jacksonville Republican who shepherded the bill, said most of the funding for new tests would come from money districts already have — and from the $700 million grant Florida received as part of the federal Race to the Top program for educational reform.
"This bill ought to be a teacher's dream, to be able to get paid for student success," he said.
The legislation was praised by the state Education Department after it passed the Senate, 26-12, mostly without veering from party lines.
During a sparsely attended public hearing Thursday on a House version of the bill, about a dozen people spoke, almost all parents in favor of the legislation. Opponents were members of teachers unions, including the Florida Education Association, the largest in the state.
"It doesn't support teachers," said Andrew Spar, president of the Volusia Teachers Organization.
The hearing was a striking departure from last year when similar legislation — the polemical Senate Bill 6, vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist — drew scores of protesting parents and teachers to the Capitol.
"Change always draws some fear," said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican and lead House sponsor. "But we're not sent up here for the status quo."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report.