TALLAHASSEE — The state's leading business organization took aim Thursday at two sacred cows in Florida's education system: teacher tenure and Bright Futures scholarships.
In a new report, the influential Florida Council of 100 calls for either eliminating tenure — a status encoded in state law that gives K-12 teachers special protections against firing — or making it much harder to get.
The group also wants to reform the popular Bright Futures merit scholarship program by raising qualification standards and directing the money saved to need-based aid.
Both Gov. Charlie Crist and his predecessor as governor, Jeb Bush, attended a press conference to roll out the report, which included dozens of other proposals to fix the "talent gap" between Florida's education system and its work force needs. Many of the ideas dovetail with recent changes in the state's accountability system, and with reforms being pushed by President Barack Obama through his Race to the Top grant program.
And many of them will be heard when the Legislature begins meeting March 2.
"We must have a seamless, integrated, coordinated effort," said Susan Story, chairwoman for the Council of 100 and chief executive of Gulf Power Co. "We can't work on just one piece. Every piece affects the other piece.
Some of the report's recommendations — like doubling higher education funding over the next five years — seem more wish list than reality, given the state's budget deficit. Other more controversial suggestions, like reviving the push for private school vouchers, read like they came directly from Bush's nonprofit education foundation.
But few may be more far-reaching than the ones dealing with tenure for K-12 teachers.
At issue are "due process" rules that unions say protect teachers from vindictive administrators, but which critics say make it cumbersome to fire bad teachers. Records show only a tiny handful of teachers in Florida are fired for ineffective teaching, while cases of teachers who stay on the job despite numerous write-ups are well documented.
At Thursday's press conference, Bush urged lawmakers to "dramatically change the way we deal with teachers."
"You can see it in the data, the way gaps grow, when students don't have a good teacher," he said.
Bush's foundation pushed a tenure-overhaul bill last year that passed the House, but got hung up in the Senate. It's expected to surface again this year, and critics concede the council's backing could give it enough juice to pass.
But gutting tenure isn't a remedy, said Jim Aulisio, a chemistry teacher at Freedom High in Tampa.
"People hear the word 'tenure' and think of the worst teacher they ever had," he said. "But the only reason you had that bad teacher is you had a bad principal who only walked in that room once or twice a year."
Bright Futures is in the cross-hairs too. About 180,000 students now use the merit scholarship toward their tuition in Florida's community colleges and universities, making it one of the most popular — and politically untouchable — state programs.
Parents love it, so lawmakers have long left it alone in spite of criticism that the qualifying grade point averages and SAT scores are too low and that more money should go to need-based aid.
Only during the past two years has the Legislature started making changes to the program, which uses about $400 million a year in lottery dollars. They de-coupled tuition increases from the award amount, effectively forcing students to pay the difference. And they established penalties for Bright Futures students who drop their classes after the start of the semester.
But the council report recommends even broader changes, including not allowing students to use the award toward any classes that aren't required for their degree. Goodbye, electives.
The report also suggests that Bright Futures cover full tuition only for students getting degrees in math, science, technology and engineering fields that could fill the work force needs of companies like Scripps Research.
In what could prove the toughest fight, it recommends raising the eligibility standards. Minority lawmakers and advocates have fought such a move, saying higher GPAs and test scores would unfairly push out bright minority students who are in low-performing schools and don't do as well on standardized tests.
Regardless, the report says, "The Bright Futures program should be transformed into a true merit-based award, rather than an entitlement."
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.