WESLEY CHAPEL — When Pasco County school principal Ginny Yanson had to get rid of a bad teacher recently, it was like running an obstacle course.
The teacher was new, still on probation. Under state law, she could be fired without cause. And yet, when she refused to execute lesson plans and "wasn't doing any teaching," Yanson couldn't just pull out a pink slip.
Yanson had weekly meetings with the teacher. She brought in mentors, model teachers, sample lesson plans. Yanson gave her a time line to improve.
"She did not follow through with any of those things," said Yanson, 63, principal at Wesley Chapel's Sand Pine Elementary.
It took the threat of firing by the School Board to get the teacher to finally resign, Yanson said.
That's the kind of story that fuels Republican lawmakers in Tallahassee as they promote legislation to revamp how teachers are evaluated, paid and fired — in what could be Florida's biggest education overhaul in a decade.
The plan would eliminate "professional services" contracts — what some people informally call tenure — and tie half of teachers' pay to student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and end-of-course exams.
Florida would be the first in the nation to base so much of an educator's salary on student performance, and one of just a handful of states that do not award multiple-year contracts to teachers with classroom experience.
The prospect concerns many.
Janet Tolson, a team leader for her sixth-grade group at Seven Springs Middle School in Trinity, thinks about her 16-year-old son who will start college soon, and what basing her pay on a moving target might mean.
"Usually I have 80 percent of my students making gains," said Tolson, 49, a 17-year teacher who is National Board certified. "But I can honestly say there are some years … when my kids don't make as many gains. … How will I be able to get credit, or a college loan … if I don't have an established salary?"
Senate sponsor John Thrasher acknowledged his proposal (SB6) would bring the most significant changes since then-Gov. Jeb Bush established his A-Plus plan a decade ago, cementing the FCAT as the measuring stick for student learning in elementary school through high school.
"It's a Nixon-goes-to-China type of thing," said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a longtime Bush supporter who now leads the Florida Republican Party. "It's a major move, and there's nothing wrong with that."
A similar bill stalled in the Senate last year but now looks more likely to pass because it has the support of Thrasher and Senate President Jeff Atwater. Gov. Charlie Crist also supports the bill, which passed its first Senate committee Wednesday.
"I think that, you know, it's really all about how the students perform at the end of the day anyway," Crist said. "So if we base how we compensate our teachers on how their students perform, it seems like a very natural thing."
If the measure becomes law, supporters and critics agree it will dramatically change teaching in Florida. The debate is whether that change will be for better or worse.
Under the bill:
• Instead of the multiple-year "professional services" contracts now awarded after three years, teachers would serve a five-year probationary period followed by single-year contracts in which pay is based on their evaluations. Half their pay would depend on student learning gains measured largely by test results, including end-of-course exams. That's a major change from the current system that sets pay rates based on degrees and years of service.
• Bonuses now given to teachers with National Board certification would be eliminated in 2014, but districts could give teachers incentives to work in low-income areas and low-performing schools.
• The state would penalize districts that don't comply by cutting some of their state funding and requiring them to raise the lost money through a local tax.
The contract provisions would affect any teacher hired after July, and the changes for testing requirements and certification standards would be phased in for all teachers through the 2013-14 school year.
While not all states call it "tenure," most have provisions in which teachers move from a probationary period early in their teaching careers to a multiyear or "continuing" contract after completing a certain period of teaching. A handful of states, including Ohio and Indiana, require probationary periods of five to seven years, but 32 states including Florida offer multiple-year contracts after three years; 10 states offer the longer contracts in one or two years.
Proponents say the current system makes it too easy for bad teachers to stay in classrooms.
"Research shows us that the quality of the teacher is the most important tool in student learning," said Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. "This bill will ensure … that we pay teachers in high-need low-income schools, and that we pay teachers whose students perform better."
Even President Barack Obama, a Democrat, has emphasized the need for such a change. He says schools should reward the best teachers and stop leaving ineffective ones in the classroom. Florida is one of 16 finalists for 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 that Thrasher proposes in SB6.
But Florida Education Association president Andy Ford said the bill is a slap in the face to teachers who have helped raise student performance and boosted Florida schools' national rankings.
"SB6 punishes the teachers who delivered these stunning results," Ford said.
Tolson, the veteran teacher, noted how parents would be part of the teacher evaluation process under the bill, yet aren't held accountable for anything.
"We actually have a teacher who has taught a long time. She's excellent," Tolson said. "She had complaints from a parent that she wasn't doing what she was supposed to do even though their student made excellent gains. … And for that we're going to take a pay cut? Do they expect to have anyone left in teaching?"
Terry Mascolino, 25, is a second-year teacher at Paul R. Smith Middle School in Holiday. He went into teaching with the expectation of some stability in exchange for good work with students.
"It's just not comforting," Mascolino said. "I wanted something structured."
Ford told lawmakers that the statutes already have provisions for getting rid of both new and long-serving teachers. But Yanson's experience showed that can be complicated and slow-going.
"I'm not so sure professional services contracts are needed," said Yanson, a principal in Pasco for 23 years. "I know it gives people a sense of security. But really good teachers do their job well no matter what."
The Senate bill is expected to go to the full chamber early this session, but the House is still drafting its version. Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, said he expects his bill to "conceptually" be "on the same page" as Thrasher's, but the House isn't in lockstep with the Senate, Legg said. Thrasher said he is open to talks on how to improve the bill.
That's welcome news to Wayne Blanton, head of the Florida School Boards Association.
"To say this bill needs work is a monumental understatement," Blanton told Thrasher. "This bill right now does more to damage teacher morale than anything I have seen in a long time."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Stephanie Hayes contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.