Contrary to what is best for students, Florida Republicans are once again drawing battle lines over education reform. Gov.-elect Rick Scott fell into the trap last week by appointing an education transition team tilted against traditional public schools and in favor of private schools and tuition vouchers. State Sen. John Thrasher fueled the animosity by falsely claiming that teachers unions are the single barrier to reform. Florida should modernize tenure and move toward performance pay for teachers, but only by building consensus across the entire education system will real reform succeed.
Scott's education transition team is packed with advocates for private school vouchers, charter schools and changes in teacher tenure. Scott's team includes Michelle Rhee, the controversial former Washington, D.C., school chancellor credited with ending teacher tenure there, and John Kirtley, a voucher advocate who has had repeated success in expanding the state's program for low-income students. Also on board is former Gov. Jeb Bush's adviser Patricia Levesque and Dennis Bakke, president and CEO of Imagine Schools, a Virginia for-profit charter school company.
Scott should have built a more inclusive team to better balance perspectives. Instead, that burden will fall almost solely on transition team member MaryEllen Elia, the well-regarded Hillsborough County superintendent. Elia has embraced performance pay, private school vouchers and charter schools while maintaining a good relationship with the teachers union. Elia recognizes that ignoring teachers never translates into better experiences in the classroom.
That's a lesson Thrasher has yet to learn. Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who is also chairman of the state Republican Party, used a national education conference last week to explain how to pass tenure and pay reform: "There is no way in our state right now that the dadgum unions are going to agree with this kind of stuff. So you either bring them to the table and tell them what you're going to do, or you run over them."
But Thrasher is in denial about who really fought his plan, Senate Bill 6, for overhauling teacher pay and tenure. The goal of the legislation was commendable — modernize compensation and retention rules to reward strong teachers and make it easier to fire bad ones. But the bill's details were fatally flawed. Thrasher ignored critics, refused most amendments and rushed a vote.
Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed SB 6 after individual teachers, administrators, school districts and parents joined the unions in raising concerns. Among the problems: Teacher pay would be based on students' learning gains, even though there was not yet a proven system for measuring those gains.
Thrasher and Scott should be working with teachers, parents and school administrators to address their concerns before the 2011 session. Otherwise, Republicans are just railing at an old political enemy instead of doing the hard work to ensure education reforms are widely embraced and successful in improving student achievement.