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Teacher overhaul moves forward in Florida House

TALLAHASSEE — Opponents tried one last time — and failed — to make changes to a bill that would dramatically reform the way public school teachers are evaluated, paid and hired. Now the fast-track legislation is one step away from the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, who has indicated he will sign it.

The Florida House moved along Senate Bill 736, which would tie teacher pay to student test scores, eliminate so-called tenure for new hires as of July 1 and end layoffs based on seniority. The chamber will take a vote on the proposal this afternoon.

"There is one thing that is conclusive on all sides of all educational research, and that is that teacher effectiveness is the most influential school-level variable that determines student learning," said Rep. Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who pushed for the legislation in the House.

His Democratic colleagues who oppose the proposal questioned how the state would pay for the bill's provisions, particularly the development of exams and other criteria to evaluate teachers. Fresen said most of the funding would come largely from Race to the Top, the $700 million competitive grant the state won from the federal government last year.

Democrats also said they fear teachers on annual contracts would not have job security even if they receive favorable evaluations. Rep. Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg suggested an effective teacher whose contract may not be renewed could be "blacklisted" and find it difficult to land another teaching position.

"What's the actual impact on that teacher for purposes of trying to get a job at another school, at another district?" he asked.

On Tuesday, House leaders set aside nine hours to bring up questions and amendments on the bill, with 12 more hours of debate scheduled for today. They based the length of time on the marathon sessions held to debate last year's contentious Senate Bill 6, a similar teacher overhaul that led to widespread protests and was ultimately vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. (Critics have christened the new proposal "Son of Six.")

But House members needed less than three hours to review amendments and questions, a reflection of the quieter tone surrounding debate on the bill this time around.

To be sure, critics have still loudly expressed their discontent with the overhaul. The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, asked its members to call and e-mail their lawmakers in protest, and teachers took to the streets across Florida last week.

Yet those demonstrations were muted compared to last year's high-decibel outrage, in part because teachers and school districts gave some input on the proposed reforms in hearings earlier this year and as part of a work group Crist convened last year before leaving office.

Also contributing to the shift in tone: the GOP's bolstered power in Tallahassee. Scott's election last November, along with a crop of new Republican lawmakers who gave their party veto-proof legislative majorities, made it all but certain that the GOP's legislative priorities would meet swift approval.

The House gave an initial go-ahead Tuesday to the Senate version of the teacher overhaul bill — without amending it, a crucial move for lawmakers to move the proposal directly to the governor's desk.

House Republicans rejected four amendments proposed by Democratic legislators that would have phased in the portion of a teacher's evaluation based on student test scores and given teachers more job security by tweaking the annual-contract provision in the bill.

Teacher overhaul moves forward in Florida House 03/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 10:53pm]
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