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Tenure reform fight creates anxiety for Florida teachers

Elena San Pedro, with sons Frankie Morales, 7, left, and Antonio Higgins, 5, and Isabel Small, is studying to become a teacher. But she wants stability, and is considering a move to Georgia.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Elena San Pedro, with sons Frankie Morales, 7, left, and Antonio Higgins, 5, and Isabel Small, is studying to become a teacher. But she wants stability, and is considering a move to Georgia.

Three years ago, Elena San Pedro was a single mother of two struggling in a dead-end job that required so many hours during tax season, she feared her children no longer recognized her.

That's when she turned to teaching.

Besides giving her tools to help her autistic son, the profession offered stability, time with her kids and, with a few more degrees, opportunities for advancement.

Or so she thought.

A bill before Gov. Charlie Crist threatens to eliminate teacher tenure — one of the hallmarks of the profession.

"I've already discussed with my family the possibility of moving to Georgia," said San Pedro, 29, a junior honors student majoring in special education at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Turns out, Georgia had its own dalliance with eliminating tenure for teachers hired in 2000. Three years of controversy later, a new governor reinstated the practice much to the relief of teachers unions.

Tenure for teachers stems back to the early 20th century, when competition for classroom jobs — considered one of the best lines of work for women — was fierce and hiring based on patronage was common.

It gave employees reassurances that they couldn't be fired willy-nilly by establishing a system of due process.

Today, tenure is perhaps the most talked-about ingredient for education reform throughout the country, though Florida is the only state currently entertaining ending it altogether.

The Republican Party leadership pushing Florida's legislation says it's the reason bad teachers stay employed and why students fail. Firing teachers can be a lengthy and expensive process.

Last year, the St. Petersburg Times found that, in five years, only three teachers had been fired in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Put teachers on yearly contracts and tie their renewal to whether or not their children make gains on tests, tenure critics say, and it'll make it easier to weed out bad teachers.

Why should teachers have these protections, anyway?

Many of Florida's 170,000 teachers have taken to the Capitol, the airwaves, the streets and the editorial pages to answer that question and register their displeasure.

"I'm a Republican," said Roxanne DeAngelis, a Hernando County art teacher who is taking a part-time job with the U.S. Census Bureau to make ends meet. "But I don't always agree with the party."

DeAngelis, 51, came to teaching nine years ago after ending a military career and being a stay-at-home mom.

The day she learned she'd achieved National Board certification was the same day she first heard about Senate Bill 6, which also would end bonuses for teachers who'd gone through the rigorous training program.

Recently divorced, she'd found her under-$45,000 salary was barely enough to sustain her single-income home. Tenure and the National Board bonus were both bright spots in an otherwise low-paying career.

Sherman Dorn, a professor in USF's College of Education, said the trade-off mentality — less money, but more security — is alive and well among educators.

"What job conditions are necessary in order to attract effective teachers and keep them in their jobs and ensure that they stay effective?" he said.

San Pedro, the USF student considering a move to Georgia before even taking a job, is struggling to achieve her goal of becoming a teacher. Her father moved into her Tampa home to help with babysitting and bills while she finishes her schooling.

As an aspiring special education teacher, she worries about her livelihood being directly tied to the performance of students whose gains are not easily measured by standardized tests.

How, she asks, would that teacher uncertainty translate to students?

"Without the tenure," she said, "there's just no stability. And it's hard to make a stable environment for the students when the teachers don't feel stable themselves."

Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University, has studied tenure reform efforts for the Center on American Progress.

He said that while Florida's party-line effort has given the controversial measure legislative buoyancy despite vocal opposition from teachers and the minority Democratic Party, its long-term durability is in question should Gov. Crist approve it.

In Georgia, McGuinn noted, it only took a change in political leadership for teacher tenure to be reinstated.

Reforms that stick, he said, are those that tend to be drawn up through compromise and debate.

"Certainly, (in Florida) the unions are not committed to seeing these reforms work," McGuinn said. "They're committed to throwing them out."

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8707.

Tenure reform efforts across the nation

Delaware: New law, drawn up with union support, makes student learning the main factor in determining whether a teacher should be granted tenure. Also allows teachers with tenure to be removed from their jobs if they are rated as "ineffective" for two to three consecutive years.

Ohio: Last year, the state approved a measure backed by Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland and structured with union input to delay tenure until a teacher has seven years of experience. It was one part in a piece of legislation that also dealt with class size, funding and new teacher induction.

Maryland: Considering legislation that increases the length of classroom time needed for tenure from two to three years.

Washington, D.C.: The district and union this week reached a preliminary bargaining agreement that includes a voluntary performance-pay program financed primarily by private foundations. After negotiations, the contract eliminated one proposal that would have required some teachers to relinquish tenure for a year for the opportunity to win performance-based bonuses.

Colorado: State leaders are considering a bill that would require three "effective" evaluations before receiving tenure.

Louisiana: Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal is backing legislation that would require teacher annual evaluations tied to student performance, and would pave the way for their dismissal if they fail repeated reviews. Also under consideration, a measure requiring any tenured classroom teacher who gets two negative evaluations within a year to have a tenure termination hearing within six months after the second evaluation.

Sources: Associated Press, Education Week

Tenure reform fight creates anxiety for Florida teachers 04/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 10:51pm]
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