TALLAHASSEE — The governor who brags about coming from a family of educators said he's ready to sign a bill slammed by critics as a union-busting assault on public school teachers.
The so-called "teacher tenure" bill, which makes it easier to fire teachers and ties pay increases to student test scores, is so controversial it narrowly passed the Senate on Wednesday in a 21-17 vote.
"This is a bill that really focuses on trying to help children and encouraging better teachers," Gov. Charlie Crist said hours after the Senate took what Republican lawmakers called a historic vote for education reform. "It pays better teachers more, and that just seems like the right thing to do to me."
The tenure legislation was one of three education measures passed by the Senate in a conservative push to transform public schools. Under the package of legislation, students could face tougher graduation requirements, more money could be directed toward private schools and a slew of teacher benefits could be eliminated.
Crist has said he would sign each bill.
That's a big blow to the state's main teachers union, the Florida Education Association, whose bargaining power and clout in the Capitol hang in the balance. The union once counted Crist as a reliable political ally, one who used to try to boost teacher pay and who often reminds audiences that two of his sisters are educators.
But now Crist is in the political fight of his life in a partisan Republican primary in which unions hold little sway.
"Bashing teachers is good for certain conservative members," said Andy Ford, the union's president, who bemoaned that there's "no collaboration. There is no cooperation" from Republican leaders. "They are going to do what's in their best political interest and not what's best for students," he said.
But Republican senators said the union is only interested in protecting itself. They faulted the FEA for telling teachers the tenure bill would slash salaries in half.
"Stop lying to teachers," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, who is sponsoring the bill that expands the state's voucher program. "There is no cut to any teacher's salary in the bill."
If the bill passes, teachers would have annual contracts, not the longer ones now in use, and school districts would be required to set aside at least 5 percent of their state money to pay for a new teacher evaluation system.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said drastic changes are needed to transform failing public schools and prepare students for the global economy.
"It's about our children and the future of our children and what is best for our children," said Thrasher, a former House speaker and longtime ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush.
"I think this is Jeb's best legislative session," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who decried the tenure change on the Senate floor.
Thrasher smiled when told of Gelber's quote. "I think 1999 was Jeb's best session," Thrasher said. "This isn't a bad one for him."
Bush remained silent about tenure Wednesday but released a statement in support of the proposed graduation requirements: "By aligning the requirements for a high school diploma with the needs of emerging industries, Florida is creating a business climate that will attract investment and the high wage jobs that come with it."
No Democrats voted in support of the tenure measure.
Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland joined three other Republicans in voting against the tenure bill. A candidate for governor, she said the legislation "disrespects all Florida teachers."
"The idea that teachers are solely responsible for a child's performance goes against everything we know about what makes children successful," she said in a prepared statement.
The vote will likely be equally partisan in the House, where Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said Crist's blessing and the Senate's early focus on education have removed any obstacles to the measures becoming law this year.
Florida is one of 16 finalists for President Barack Obama's Race to the Top grant program for public schools, and its application includes many of the same proposals for teacher pay and end-of-course exams.
Teachers at Countryside High in Clearwater were shocked to learn the Senate had passed the tenure bill, Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black said.
"It was like telling someone a tragic accident had happened," she said.
In Pasco County, Lisa Mazza, a third-grade teacher at West Zephyrhills Elementary School, lambasted the Senate for moving ahead with "what they perceive as reality." Schools are making academic gains, she said, and teachers, by and large, strive to meet the needs of all students.
The Senate bill would put public education into a business model that will harm children's education, she said.
"We're not putting out a product. We're educating young people for the future," said Mazza, 50, who has taught for more than 25 years. "I am actually scared for the future of Florida."
She planned to wear red in protest during school today and intends to mount a letter writing campaign.
The Senate is scheduled take up the question today of whether to allow voters to consider easing requirements in the state's 2002 constitutional amendment that required smaller class sizes (SJR 2). If approved by three-fifths of the Legislature and 60 percent of the voters, size caps would be based on school averages rather than classroom counts.
Two other education measures, all opposed to varying degrees by the union, were approved Wednesday:
• High school students would eventually have to pass end-of-year tests in math and science, which would replace the FCAT (SB4).
• The maximum amount of money available for the state's tax scholarship program, where corporations are allowed to receive a tax credit if they make a donation to an approved voucher school, would grow from $118 million to $140 million (SB 2126).
Roughly 5,000 voucher supporters crammed the Capitol courtyard, including about 400 from the Tampa Bay area in matching blue shirts that read, "Leveling the Playing Field."
Further distancing himself from the teachers union, Crist addressed the cheering crowd.
"Your future is priceless and Florida understands that," he said. "And that's why we're working to make sure your choice is heard."
Times/Herald staff writers Lee Logan, Ron Matus, Jeff Solochek, Mary Ellen Klas, Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.