Gov. Charlie Crist courageously stood up to members of his own political party Thursday by vetoing Senate Bill 6, a plan rammed through the Florida Legislature in just five weeks that would have revolutionized how public school teachers are paid and evaluated. The bill embraced reasonable concepts but was fatally flawed in the way it implemented them. The next time Republican legislators tackle these issues, they should invite educators to help work out the details.
Crist offered a thorough, thoughtful explanation for his veto. The bill's reliance on student testing as the cornerstone of teacher evaluations failed to account for the various factors that can affect students' performance, particularly in special education. The bill infringed on school boards' authority by setting salary and employment standards at the state level. It too severely punished teachers who need improvement. And House Republican leaders, by refusing to allow changes on the House floor, failed to address valid concerns raised by teachers, superintendents, school boards, parents and students.
From the beginning, SB 6 tried to accomplish too much in a single piece of rushed legislation. It ordered a new student assessment system based on end-of-course tests for every single class. It made student performance on those tests, still to be designed, the core factor in determining a teacher's annual evaluation. And it based all future pay increases and renewals of teaching certificates on those annual evaluations. It also eliminated tenure for any new teacher hired after July 1.
The result was that the stated goal of the bill — to reward teachers who demonstrate their ability to improve student learning — was undermined. By jamming all three provisions into a single bill, none was adequately executed.
The bill only required end-of-course exams, not assessments that would measure actual learning gains. That can only be done if a student is tested at the beginning and the end of the year. It also was silent on allowing school districts to consider student demographics in determining a teacher's evaluation. Many teachers worried that under the bill, just a year or two of challenging students could doom their career.
Too often, the rhetoric from the bill's supporters did not match the legislation. Lawmakers claimed the bill would not cut teachers' pay, but by adding no new money to carry out the changes the Legislature virtually assured some teachers' salaries would be cut. School districts would have been required to abandon old salary schedules and set aside up to 5 percent of their state funding to implement SB 6. And with no increase in state funding on the horizon, that would have inevitably meant that raises for the best performing teachers would likely come from cutting others' salaries.
Angry legislative leaders complained Thursday that Crist, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, had misled them by supporting the bill. The governor should have been more familiar with the details of the legislation, but lawmakers misled everyone with their vague reassurances.
Other states that won the federal Race to the Top competition, and Hillsborough County, have demonstrated there is a better way to implement performance pay systems. Delaware, Tennessee and Hillsborough all negotiated up front with teachers and school officials on how to measure student success and teachers' role in it. All three have also pledged resources to help teachers meet the new higher bar.
Lawmakers are right to want to modernize Florida's teaching profession so that the best teachers are well paid and the worst are fired. But Crist was right that the solution cannot be built inside the Legislature's echo chamber. He did not stand up for teacher unions Thursday; he stood up for teachers and for real reform. He stood up to arrogant Republican legislators and influential business groups who refused to listen. Instead of criticizing the governor for exposing their failures, legislative leaders should begin again, this time in collaboration with the education community.