Florida needs to reform how it pays and evaluates teachers so the best are rewarded and the ineffective are dismissed. But the deeply flawed legislation that abolishes tenure for new teachers won't meet that goal. Republican leaders rejected all efforts, even from within their own party, to improve the plan. Gov. Charlie Crist should veto the bill and encourage the Legislature to collaborate with teachers on building a performance-pay system that is clear, fair and inspiring. • The bill (SB 6) would abolish tenure for future teachers starting July 1 and make high-stakes testing central to whether any teacher receives a raise or qualifies to renew a teaching certificate in 2014-15. But the plan that Republicans arrogantly rammed through the Legislature and refused to modify is riddled with problems:
Annual learning gains are not defined. Republicans say teachers will receive raises based in part on how their students perform on tests that measure what they learn in a year in every single class. But the bill does not require testing at both the beginning and end of the school year — the only practical way to measure learning gains. It only calls for end-of-course assessments and allows other kinds of tests, such as the FCAT, to be substituted in grades where they are available. That's not the same thing as measuring learning gains, leaving teachers nervous about how they will actually be judged and whether they will end up losing out on salary increases based solely on the kind of students they teach.
Coaching for teachers is missing. Republicans blame the teachers union's lack of support for Florida's failure to secure $1 billion in federal Race to the Top funds. But the states the Obama administration selected, Delaware and Tennessee, promised significant help to teachers adapting to new performance measures. Hillsborough County's new teacher performance pay system, backed by the $100 million Gates Foundation grant, has similar support plans. SB 6 offers no such help to teachers who want to improve and meet expectations.
No new money is added. The bill was written with the expectation Florida would receive Race to the Top money. But when it didn't, lawmakers added no other money to help reward the best teachers or cover the costs for developing new tests. The plan requires school districts starting in 2011-12 to spend up to 5 percent of their per student money to implement the changes, including developing end-of-course assessments for every grade and ultimately awarding merit pay. But it's a zero-sum game. School districts face flat funding in the foreseeable future. That means some teachers are likely to see pay cuts to cover the cost of writing tests and giving others raises starting in 2014-15.
Rating systems for teachers are flawed. Under the new system all teachers would receive an annual rating of highly effective, effective, needs improvement or ineffective. But the bill would assess the same penalty for teachers found to "need improvement" in two recent years as it does for one rated "ineffective." Teachers hired after July 1 could not be rehired for their sixth or subsequent years if they were rated "needs improvement'' in two of the previous three years. And starting in 2014-15, no teacher could qualify for teaching certificate renewal if two out of the previous five years they were rated "needs improvement."
The likely result: Principals will be reluctant to be candid in performance ratings about which teachers need improvement, because the consequences are too severe for a teacher who is eager to improve and has the potential with more coaching to raise his or her game.
Republicans backing the bill have painted opponents as liberal Democrats or sycophants for the politically active teachers union, the Florida Education Association. But the reality is more nuanced and the opposition more bipartisan than that. Some teachers interviewed at protests in the Tampa Bay area have identified themselves as Republicans. Four Republican Tampa Bay House members were among the 11 who had the gumption to stand up to party leaders and vote against the bill early Friday morning: Faye Culp of Tampa, Ed Homan of Tampa, Peter Nehr of Tarpon Springs and Ron Schultz of Homosassa.
Those legislators who voted against the bill understand that without cooperation and buy-in from teachers, individually and collectively, attempts to reform public school classrooms will not succeed. The broad concepts embraced by this legislation are the right ones, but the execution is all wrong. Republican legislative leaders have been unwilling to acknowledge there is room for collaboration and improvement. And if Florida wants to win Race to the Top dollars from the Obama administration, it is going to have show more cooperation between politicians and teachers.
Crist risks alienating some Republican legislators by vetoing the bill, but allowing it to become law could have a far more damaging impact on public education and create an era of uncertainty that would undermine every school district. The governor should veto the bill and encourage lawmakers to try again, this time with more open minds and teachers at the table.
Florida needs to overhaul how it pays and evaluates its teachers. But not like this.