BROOKSVILLE — State Rep. Ron Schultz is on a collision course with what could be one of the toughest votes in his legislative career.
Schultz, a Homosassa Republican and one of four members of Hernando County's legislative delegation, faces pressure from party leaders to approve a bill that would radically change how Florida's teachers are paid and evaluated.
On the other side are teachers and their unions who say the bill is an insult and an attack on their profession.
"I don't think I've had half a dozen e-mails from people who support it," said Schultz, whose district includes a portion of west-central Hernando County.
Caught in the middle are Schultz and his conscience.
Schultz stopped short Tuesday of saying he would vote against House Bill 7189. But he has serious misgivings about fundamental components of the bill that passed the chamber's education committee Monday and is expected to come up for a floor vote this week.
Schultz said he is well aware of the advisory from party leaders not to add amendments that would force the measure back to the Senate, which narrowly passed its version two weeks ago.
"That gives one an interesting black-and-white delineation, and that's always discomfiting," Schultz said.
The bill requires at least half of a teacher's annual evaluation to be based on individual student progress, also called student learning gains, starting in the 2014-15 school year.
Schultz, who came to office in a special election in 2007 and was re-elected the following year, said he isn't sure how a test can fairly and accurately assess a teacher's role in student gains when there are so many other variables that can affect learning.
"The children have hormonal changes, social changes and family changes," he said. "How do you, in testing, pull out the teacher component? I don't know if that can be done."
Donna Depinet-Dasher, a teacher at Powell Middle School in Spring Hill, was among the educators who trekked to Tallahassee for the House education committee hearing Monday. She said it was clear that lawmakers had made up their minds.
The 52-year-old veteran teacher said she is most concerned about losing her job simply because some students decide to blow off tests.
"If they do that two years out of five, I lose my certificate," she said. "I just feel like I'm being held hostage by some of these students who don't care if they pass."
She called any lawmaker — especially a current or former teacher — who votes for the bill as misguided at best. She said she knows her fate is in the hands of GOP legislators like Schultz who are considering a nay vote.
The bill makes no changes to tenure contracts for current teachers, but ends tenure for teachers hired on or after July 1 of this year. Schultz, a former property appraiser for Citrus County, said that would leave good teachers vulnerable to the political winds.
"It appears to me you need some degree of protection for public employees so they don't become political pawns," Schultz said. "I am uncomfortable that the bill does not deal with that traditional need."
State Rep. Rob Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican who represents the rest of Hernando County, said he would support the measure.
"Quite frankly, this bill is good for teachers," said Schenck, himself a former teacher. "For the first time, it's going to pay them what they're worth."
He said teachers who perform well will see an increase in base salaries. In Hernando, veteran teachers at the top salary level might make about $50,000, Schenck said. This bill could bump that up to $75,000, he said.
When asked about the overwhelming opposition from teachers, Schenck said the bill is a victim of misinformation.
"Every (current) teacher can keep their tenure, no teacher is going to take a pay cut, no teacher is going to lose their differential pay for an advanced degree," he said.
He acknowledged teachers are concerned about their evaluations and pay being tied to student learning gains. That's why, he said, "only 50 percent" of a teacher's evaluation would be based on student performance, and the average of three years of gains will be used.
"Being a teacher and having family members that are teachers, I truly would never support something that I thought was not in their best interests," Schenck said.
The controversial bills have split lawmakers mostly along party lines, though some GOP members have defected.
Among them is state Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, one of the other members of Hernando County's delegation, who called the bill a power-grab by lawmakers that takes local control from school districts, costs too much and is unfair to teachers.
The bill would hold back 5 percent of state funding to local districts each year to pay for assessment tools. To avoid classroom cuts, school districts will have to raise local taxes, Dockery wrote in an opinion piece last week.
"We don't need any more Tallahassee one-size-fits-all solutions for our communities or our schools," wrote Dockery, who also criticized her party's tactics to ram through the measure. "In an open forum with public debate and input, we can do better than this bill."
State Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican and the fourth member of the Hernando delegation, voted for the measure, citing reasons similar to Schenck's.
To help decide how to vote, Schultz said he planned to spend much of the day Tuesday talking to colleagues "whose education-oriented opinions I value."
One of them, he said, is state Rep. Faye Culp of Tampa, a Republican and former Hillsborough School Board member who has a doctorate in educational leadership.
During Monday's House education committee hearing, Culp sided with Democrats on a handful of amendments that sought to protect teacher certification and reward teachers who seek higher degrees.
She eventually voted for the bill, but warned: "If it does not change, I will be voting no on the House floor."
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431.