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Crist backs off support for teacher tenure bill

TALLAHASSEE — Using his strongest language yet, Gov. Charlie Crist said Wednesday that the Legislature should soften a controversial bill that would link teacher pay to student performance and criticized Republican leaders for trying to block any floor amendments.

"That is disappointing because I think you always have to keep an open mind," Crist said. "There was a lot of complaining in Washington about health care legislation sort of being rammed through, and I don't want Florida to do similar kinds of things."

Crist's statement represents the first significant hurdle for the so-called "teacher tenure" bill, which is expected to pass the House today. SB 6 flew through the Senate last month.

Crist said he does not want to veto the bill, but said he was concerned how the legislation would affect special-needs teachers.

"I had a conversation with a friend of mine for many years, he was concerned about the provisions of the bill that require progress. And he's like, 'How can my son have progress?' " Crist said. "It's very challenging. And that's weighing on me heavily."

Crist acknowledged he was shifting his opinion. "Shame on any public servant who doesn't listen to the people," he said.

Crist said he "would absolutely agree" that he is now setting himself apart from the Republican-controlled Legislature.

"If there are things that are happening that you don't think are in the best interest of the people of Florida, you know, I stand up for them, and that's what I'm doing," Crist said.

Crist's position pits him squarely against Republican Party chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who introduced the bill in the Senate at a time when polls place Crist behind former House Speaker Marco Rubio in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican and chairman of the Education Policy Council, said he was surprised by Crist's policy shift.

"I am a little bit confused," he said. "He left a message for me yesterday congratulating me on the great job we did on committee knowing how hard we had worked on the bill."

Weatherford added, "If he wants to see an amendment he hasn't called us and told us that."

The bill seeks to place all new teachers on annual contracts, link salary increases and professional certification to student learning gains and require school districts to redirect 5 percent of their funding back to the state to pay for the program.

The effort is celebrated by proponents who argue that excelling teachers deserve greater pay and more job security than teachers who instruct failing students.

"I see this as an opportunity for teachers to finally be paid adequately," said Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican.

But opponents say the bill creates new financial obligations for cash-strapped schools and will further deter bright teachers from working in low-income, academically challenged schools.

House leaders said they did not want to change the bill, which would require a second vote in the Senate.

Still, a handful of Democrats and moderate Republicans attempted to massage the legislation during a six-hour debate Wednesday night. All 13 proposed amendments failed.

"The reason we have an amendatory process is to make a good bill better," said Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, who defended an amendment that would require school districts to recognize advanced education degrees when computing compensation.

The bill is expected to come before the House for a vote today.

If it passes, Crist would have seven days to sign it.

Ron Meyer, the teachers union lawyer who's leading a 527 attack group over the legislation, said the group was encouraged by Crist's decision to be "the only adult in the room" by threatening a veto.

"From a political standpoint, there's a wave of outrage over this that's both Republican and Democrat, and he can capitalize on this anger that has built up over this process," Meyer said.

The tenure legislation was one of many significant measures considered by the House on Wednesday, including:

• A constitutional amendment that asks voters to scale back the class-size amendment and slightly increase the number of students allowed in public school classrooms.

• Legislation that would expand the state's school voucher program and allow private schools to eventually collect tax dollars worth as much as 80 percent of the per pupil spending awarded to public schools.

Both bills, which critics said were part of a Republican effort to reduce public school funding, are scheduled for a full House vote today.

Meanwhile, teachers continued their campaign against the legislation with state rallies.

In Tampa, several hundred people lined the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bridge over the Hillsborough River to protest.

Joe Clifford, the principal at Central High School in Hernando County, bashed lawmakers for forcing the bill on educators.

"This bill was done very quickly," he said. "If it's not cost effective, let's get rid of it."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Dan Sullivan contributed to this report.

Crist backs off support for teacher tenure bill 04/07/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 9:08am]
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