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Future teachers express qualms about Florida's education overhaul

In Palm Harbor on Friday, teachers, from left, Lauren Hansell of Pinellas Park High and Carole Robinson and Brandt Robinson of Dunedin High protest a proposed education overhaul.


In Palm Harbor on Friday, teachers, from left, Lauren Hansell of Pinellas Park High and Carole Robinson and Brandt Robinson of Dunedin High protest a proposed education overhaul.

Molly McCann thought about becoming a doctor until working with special-needs kids made her realize her passion: teaching. But now, on the verge of graduating with an education degree, the University of South Florida student is thinking twice about working in Florida because of a bill chugging through the Legislature.

Senate Bill 6 would upend an entire profession by ending teacher tenure and tying job evaluations to student test scores.

McCann, 22, says when she made her career choice, that's not what she had in mind.

"The bill focuses on test performance. It seems to take the joy out of the learning process," said McCann, a graduate of the top-flight International Baccalaureate program at King High School in Tampa. "A lot of people are worried in this climate and saying, 'Is this really what you want to walk into?' "

If it becomes law, SB 6 will change how all of Florida's 170,000 teachers are paid, evaluated, contracted and certified. It is meeting with growing protests from teachers statewide.

But its impact will be most profound on those who enter the system after July 1. Whether it will attract or repel new teachers is a huge question in a state that often needs 20,000 new teachers a year.

Nobody knows the answer. So many vital details — like what new teacher salary scales will look like — won't be hammered out until later. Up-and-coming teachers are left to wrestle with that uncertainty, even as some of them like parts of the bill that could weed out bad educators.

"I have had some horrible teachers," said Kathleen Walker, 20, a sophomore education major at USF St. Petersburg. "I believe it was because they had that security" that tenure provides.

Depending on whom you talk to, the bill either trashes the profession or uplifts it.

In a world transformed by SB 6, teachers will no longer be paid based on years of experience or what kind of academic degree they hold. Instead, standardized test scores will likely be the biggest factor in who gets raises.

Critics say that alone is enough to drive talented people away.

"I can just imagine how much luck a (teacher) recruiter is going to have going to another state and saying, 'Come on down to Florida. We won't pay for your advanced degree and we won't recognize you for years of experience either,' " said Colleen Kennedy, dean of the college of education at USF in Tampa, which awarded more than 1,000 education degrees last year.

Supporters, though, see a magnet in a new system that rewards results. They say there's a trade-off in SB 6: less job security for all teachers, but more money for some. They say newer teachers, especially, stand to benefit.

Under SB 6, new teachers will no longer get the continuing contracts and legal protections from firing — often called tenure — that teachers have enjoyed for decades. They'll have annual contracts that can be renewed, or not, at the end of each year.

But the bill is also likely to result in pay scales that shift more money to new teachers.

New teachers come in at low salaries ($37,010 in Pinellas and $37,014 in Hillsborough, for a new teacher with a bachelor's degree) and don't get decent raises until late in their careers. Some say that's a reason up to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years, and why so few people switch careers to become teachers when they're older.

Will more pay sooner make a difference?

"Totally," said Paul Fry, 55, who became a Pinellas teacher through a St. Petersburg College program after 30 years as a computer technician in the private sector, most of that time running his own company. "Most people (switching careers into teaching) are taking a big cut to come down to that $37,000."

One national group that recruits career changers says SB 6 will make its job easier.

"If it was a deterrent, we'd be the first ones to say so," said Tim Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, a New York group that recruits career changers for about 30 school districts. "We'd love to have this (SB 6) to sell the profession."

Career changers, though, are a small portion of those in the teaching pipeline. The vast majority come through education colleges like those at USF and UCF, which produce more homegrown teachers than any other institutions in Florida.

"Our students are uneasy," said Sandra Robinson, dean of the education college at the University of Central Florida. "They see the potential in this where … they can't do what they hoped to do and expected to do."

At USF St. Petersburg, five education majors who agreed to sit down with the St. Petersburg Times said they had concerns about SB 6. All five said it was unfair to base so much of their effectiveness on standardized test scores. But they offered a range of views about other parts of the bill, especially the elimination of tenure.

Having annual contracts "puts a fire under your butt," said Maxime Martinez, 21, a junior from Fort Myers who was leaning against the bill for other reasons.

But tenure is an important perk considering low salaries, said Kristin Perkins, 20, a sophomore from St. Petersburg whose mother is a teacher. "You have to balance it out. If you take away all the benefits, it lowers the prestige."

It's also important considering how specific a teacher's training is, said junior Chris Lumb, 26. He said he'd gladly take lower pay with more job security.

"If you have a degree in elementary education, what else are we going to do?" he said. "Fix somebody's car?"

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8873.

Future teachers express qualms about Florida's education overhaul 04/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 3, 2010 7:33pm]
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