To improve public schools, Florida needs to make it easier to fire bad teachers and reward the effective ones. But the Republican-led Legislature needs to tread carefully as it looks to overhaul teacher tenure. An approach that focuses on punitive measures for both districts and teachers, more than on incentives and reasonableness, could easily backfire and drive even good teachers away.
A better strategy is taking shape in Hillsborough County, where a $100 million, seven-year grant from the Gates Foundation has enabled district and union officials to work together. They are structuring a new compensation system that will include performance pay and more rigorous tenure standards, but that also provides extensive teacher support along the way.
Hillsborough's model is structured on the realistic premise that new teachers don't arrive fully formed and can flounder when left alone in a classroom. Few professions give so much responsibility so early in a career. The goal is to pair new teachers with accomplished peers who will teach them how to assess students' gains day-by-day so the teachers can adjust strategies to maximize outcomes. That offers far more promise than awaiting the results of once-a-year standardized tests.
But the tenure overhaul plan rolled out this week in Senate Bill 6 by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, is far more dramatic, less thoughtful and potentially unconstitutional. It would require the state's 67 school districts to base more than 50 percent of teachers' pay on student performance. Districts that refuse to comply would be forced to raise taxes to compensate for state funds they would lose.
The plan raises obvious questions about state infringement on school districts' local control and collective bargaining rights, as well as the issue of differential state funding. For teachers, abruptly tying more than half their salary to student achievement — which would be defined by state Education Department rules — can be a frightening prospect. The profession already pays relatively little for the responsibility assumed. And in recent years, teaching in Florida has come with few, if any, pay raises.
Thrasher's plan comes as the future of education funding is in doubt. The state saved thousands of teachers' jobs this year with federal stimulus money, and is expected to do so again in 2010-11. Then what? How much uncertainty will good teachers tolerate before bailing for other states or occupations?
For sure, teacher compensation needs to be better tied to effectiveness. And it should be easier to fire bad teachers. But Thrasher's plan moves so radically, so quickly, its risks are great. Florida has made gains in education in recent years, largely due to the people doing the work in the classroom. Before the state rewrites how to pay them, more discussion is needed. Thrasher has launched the debate and carries significant influence as the newly elected chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. But he should not have the last word.