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Republican-loyal teachers in Hernando County oppose GOP education bill

A rain-soaked Dennis Sopoanai holds up his sign against Senate Bill 6 on March 21. “It’s like the sign says, every $1,000 cut from salaries takes $1.7 million from the local economy,” he said as he stood outside the Palace Grand in Spring Hill, where Gov. Charlie Crist was holding a fundraiser. “What about the small businesses that would go bankrupt? We could even start losing our houses.”

CHRIS PRICE | Special to the Times

A rain-soaked Dennis Sopoanai holds up his sign against Senate Bill 6 on March 21. “It’s like the sign says, every $1,000 cut from salaries takes $1.7 million from the local economy,” he said as he stood outside the Palace Grand in Spring Hill, where Gov. Charlie Crist was holding a fundraiser. “What about the small businesses that would go bankrupt? We could even start losing our houses.”

As his constituents stood outside the Palace Grand in the rain last weekend waving wet protest signs, local teachers union president Joe Vitalo was inside, working the room.

Vitalo, head of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, came to the fundraiser for Gov. Charlie Crist's Senate campaign with the goal to lobby local GOP movers and shakers against Senate Bill 6. The measure, which makes sweeping changes to how Florida's teachers are evaluated and compensated, has drawn widespread opposition from the state's unions.

Vitalo says he got five minutes of face time with the governor.

"If you really dig into the three dozen components in (the bill), you will find it hurts Florida's economy and hurts Florida's education system," Vitalo recalls telling Crist.

"He was very open and receptive."

Within days of that conversation, the Senate approved the bill on a 21-17 vote, House Republicans rammed it through an education committee without amendments, despite an outcry from opponents, and Crist said he would support it.

Vitalo, who was invited to the March 21 fundraiser as a card-carrying Republican, is among educators who find themselves protesting legislation put forth by their own party.

"It's a destructive bill," he said.

Many GOP educators were around a decade ago when Gov. Jeb Bush used a Republican majority in the Legislature to pass his controversial A-Plus plan. Teachers lamented then that Bush's plan put too much emphasis on one test and took what many described as a punitive approach to accountability.

Now Republican teachers say they are once again watching a party that is supposed to stand for less government and more local control pushing education policy in the wrong direction.

This time, they say, the effects could be devastating.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. John Thrasher of Jacksonville and supported by Bush, the law would eliminate "professional services" contracts — sometimes called tenure — and tie half of teachers' pay to student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and end-of-course exams.

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. Districts would be required to set aside at least 5 percent of their state money to pay for a new teacher evaluation system, which opponents say will take money away from classroom programs.

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.

"It's about our children and the future of our children and what is best for our children," Thrasher, a former House speaker and longtime ally of Bush, said last week.

Vitalo said few of the people he talked at Crist's fundraiser had a deep knowledge of the measure.

"They just know teachers don't like it," he said.

The bill prompted Chocachatti Elementary teacher Rhonda Bowers, a lifelong Republican, to grab a raincoat and join about 80 other teachers in front of the Palace Grand waiting for Crist to arrive. Bowers held a sign with the message: "SB 6 will chase away great teachers." While they waited, teachers aimed the signs at motorists zooming by on U.S. 19 in Spring Hill.

"So many people are not aware of what's going on," Bowers said. "They're not aware teachers are being attacked. If we need to stand out by the side of the road getting wet, we will do that. If we need to be inside talking to politicians, we will do that, too."

Still, she added: "That we have to stand on the side of the road to defend ourselves is appalling."

'We're not traitors'

While Democrats and teachers unions are typically closely aligned, especially on education issues, there are more Republican educators in Florida — and in Hernando County, in particular — than one might expect.

Vitalo didn't have precise figures on party affiliation in the local union. But in the 2008 primary, the number of Republican members who showed up to vote was about 20 percent higher than the number of Democrats, he said.

"We're not traitors and we're not RINOs (Republicans In Name Only)," said Vitalo, a lifelong GOP member who registered in 1980 and voted for Ronald Reagan. "What we do support is people who are supportive of our education policies and our students. It's not about party line."

He cited the local union's past endorsements of Charlie Dean, a former Republican sheriff and House member from Citrus County. Now a state senator, Dean was one of four GOP senators who joined the Democrats in opposition to SB 6.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow declined to give specific party affiliation statistics for the group's 250,000 members.

While Democrats do outnumber Republicans, the latter make up a "significant chunk," Pudlow said. There are Republican union presidents like Vitalo, too, especially in the more conservative Panhandle counties.

Pudlow said he gets feedback from a good number of those Republican union members.

"As far as education is concerned, they're not real happy with the direction things are going in," he said. "As a teacher, you're out there doing your level best, meeting all the mandates that come down, yet you still continue to be scapegoated and face new and different and more dangerous and chaotic things every year."

Pudlow said the only teachers he has heard praise the plan were presenters from Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education during Senate committee meetings.

Because of the A-Plus plan or in spite of it, teachers say, Florida education is improving, and the state's new differentiated accountability system and changes to the federal No Child Left Behind Act should be given a chance to continue that trend. The bill passed by the Senate last week seems destined to throw a wrench in the works.

Nancy Kraus is a 48-year-old teacher at Chocachatti and a lifelong Republican who identifies with the party principles of personal responsibility and the power of the free market. She cringes, for example, at the health care plan just passed by the Democrats in Congress.

But the GOP is falling way short on education at the state level, Kraus said.

"I do think government has messed up education in a lot of ways," she said. "You have people who are absolutely clueless (making policy)."

Her co-worker Ruth Markham, a 21-year veteran teacher and registered Republican, agreed.

"I am very disappointed, discouraged, and feel let down by the Republican Party right now," Markham said. "Are they listening to the people? Do they care about and value teachers, and what we have done so far? Why aren't they voting on what is best for Florida (rather) than straight party line?"

Teachers are frightened by the prospect of having so much of their salary tied to test scores because student performance is inherently unpredictable, even with the best efforts by teachers, Markham said.

Markham recalled one year when she had a group of high-achieving students who made great gains. The next year, she had many students with varying disabilities, language barriers and other challenges. She spent extra time with students during her lunch and planning period and before and after school, but the group still did not make comparable learning gains.

"The first year I would be highly effective; the next year I would be considered ineffective," she said.

A paradigm shift

Lawmakers' stances on this issue will factor heavily in union endorsements for this year's election cycle, union leaders said.

All four members of Hernando County's legislative delegation are Republicans. Three are campaigning this year.

Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who is running for governor, opposed the bill, saying it "disrespects all Florida teachers."

Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey voted for the measure. Fasano, whose last term in the Senate will come to an end in 2012, acknowledges the policy would mean a paradigm shift for teachers, said his spokesman, Greg Giordano. Fasano supports the bill as a way to motivate teachers and compensate them for a job well done, Giordano said.

"This will finally give the teacher who is excited and wants to work well for students the incentive to be rewarded," Giordano said. "In the end, (Fasano) believes it will be fully embraced by most teachers."

Giordano called it unfortunate that the issue is being "perceived as a Republican vs. Democrat" issue.

The House could consider its own version of the bill this week.

Rep. Robert Schenck of Spring Hill, who is up for re-election, rejected the notion that Republican teachers should feel betrayed by their party. He said he generally supports increased accountability and higher teacher pay, but stopped short of saying he would approve a final bill that had the main principles of the Senate measure included.

"All I can say is, speaking as a Republican and a former teacher, there are definitely things we can improve," he said.

Rep. Ron Schultz of Homosassa said he has received hundreds of e-mails in opposition to the Senate bill and visits from angry School Board members. He said he understands concerns that Tallahassee is overstepping its bounds and forcing an ineffective mandate on school districts.

"It looks like it's going to be an exciting debate," he said.

Meanwhile, there are signs the teachers in both parties are disillusioned: The number of independent members in the unions is growing fast, Vitalo and Pudlow said.

"No matter what, I'm proud to be a Republican, and I'm not going to switch," Vitalo said. "I just wonder where my party went to."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Republican-loyal teachers in Hernando County oppose GOP education bill 03/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 27, 2010 2:10pm]
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