Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed into law sweeping changes in how public school teachers are evaluated and paid, declaring the changes "will give Florida the best educated work force to compete in the 21st century economy." If only it were that easy. The Student Success Act (SB 736) embraces the right general concepts, and Florida needs to move from seniority to student performance in determining teacher pay. But the Republican-led Legislature failed to provide any money to carry out the ambitious mission and left significant other flaws that will have to be corrected.
Scott and lawmakers should remain open to modifications in the months to come, or they risk doing more harm than good in teacher retention and recruitment efforts. They also should reach out to the state's teachers and assure them that their objective is to build a new evaluation system that is fair and based on sound principles, not political whims.
Making those changes would require lawmakers to revisit the law before it is fully implemented in 2014-15. Among the areas that should be addressed:
FUNDING. Scott and other state leaders give lip service and not much else to paying good teachers more. The governor has proposed cutting public school budgets by 10 percent next year. The Legislature is expected to ultimately cut less than that, but there's no talk of finding more money to implement the costly new law, including money needed to create students' standardized tests and teacher evaluation systems, provide mentoring for teachers or, most significantly, raise the pay of good teachers. Florida's average teacher pay already is expected to rank 47th in the country for 2010-11 — before next year's budget cuts. One option that should be discussed: raising the property tax millage for public schools. Lower property tax values have meant lower tax bills for property owners in recent years, and even a partial recovery of those dollars for teacher pay would go a long way toward buying goodwill in the classroom.
MEASUREMENT TOOLS. Lawmakers built the new teacher evaluation system, including teacher pay, around standardized tests — many of which have yet to be written. Lawmakers also ordered districts to create methods for using those test scores to determine student learning gains and a teacher's effectiveness. Those measurement tools are untested, and there is no provision for a gradual rollout to check for problems. Teachers have a reason to be fearful, as some merit-pay systems being set up in local districts are unfair, such as holding teachers accountable for student test scores in subjects they don't teach. Lawmakers will need to remain open to tweaking the evaluation system to ensure the right things are being measured and teachers are treated fairly.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING. Some aspects of the bill, such as prescribing a matrix for teachers' performance pay, may well run afoul of unions' collective bargaining protections in the Florida Constitution. Unless lawmakers tweak those provisions, they can expect litigation that may unnecessarily thwart the plan's implementation.
Florida embarks down this new road with too much haste, too little compromise and far too little money. Lawmakers would have better served taxpayers if they had spent more time this session working out potential problems and soothing teachers' understandable concerns. But there is time to make improvements, if lawmakers and the governor are willing to work with teachers and become more flexible.