House panel OKs bill despite teachers’ protest

April 8th, 2010 by

TALLAHASSEE – Powerful business groups and the state teachers union collided in debate today over politically charged legislation that would make it easier to fire experienced teachers and base more of their salaries on student test scores.

The battle between the two factions mounted over the weekend as the union and Florida Chamber of Commerce hit the airwaves with political ads. Teachers and parents have likewise deluged lawmakers with telephone calls and e-mails in a coordinated attack on the measure, which would eliminate traditional tenure for teachers hired after July 1, and base pay increases largely on student test-score gains.

The bill already has passed the Senate and is barreling through the House toward final passage.

The teachers union, historically a fierce backer of the Democratic Party, is lambasting the plan as punishing teachers and making it harder for Florida to recruit others. The mandate, the union argues, comes without sufficient funding to train teachers and create new end-of-course exams required under the bill, which teachers claim to be a union-busting effort on the part of Republicans. The Senate sponsor, John Thrasher, is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Backers of the proposal – industry groups as well as former Gov. Jeb Bush, who remains an influential voice on education through his conservative Foundation For Florida’s Future – are lauding it as a necessary means to boost teacher quality. Good teachers, they say, would be able to make more money faster, while districts could more easily jettison those deemed to be ineffective.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president Arthur Rothkopf urged lawmakers today to do what it takes to boost student achievement, arguing, “We can’t afford to continue the status quo and expect to remain competitive in the global economy.”

The goal, said John Legg, the main House sponsor, is to “ensure that every student that is in our state has a qualified and effective, highly effective, teacher.”

Unlike Thrasher, who is an attorney, Legg is a teacher, a perspective that he stressed.

“I know firsthand that our teachers have a great task that’s before them,” said Legg, R-Port Richey, a history teacher who co-founded Dayspring Academy charter school and is now an administrator there. “Teacher-quality reform is a hard task. And we simply cannot shy away from it because it’s difficult, because it’s unpleasant.”

He added, “Quite honestly, my daughter has had some real stinker of teachers, that were ineffective, and nothing was being done about it.”

The proposal includes a carve-out for Hillsborough County, preserving its current tenure system due to ongoing reform efforts at the local level. But even that system could no longer provide the job security that Hillsborough’s teachers enjoy now, according to the local teachers union, because other provisions in the bill would make it harder for all teachers to remain certified.

The House’s final, nearly eight-hour hearing on the measure drew hundreds of teachers to the Capitol, bearing signs, shirts and strong messages of protest.

Among them was Land O’ Lakes High School teacher Kenny Blankenship of Pasco County, who was worried about his job security and salary hinging on the performance of students struggling with problems outside of the classroom.

“I don’t have a problem with someone coming to evaluate me as a teacher; I expect that,” said Blankenship, who teaches 10th grade social studies and has 13 years of teaching experience. “But to grade me on how the students perform – keep in mind – I have four ladies right now who are pregnant and leaving to deliver. Others have both parents who lost their jobs, their houses. These things affect a student’s performance.”

During testimony, Blankenship was more strident.

“This bill makes education a political football,” he said. We all know where this bill comes from. It’s not about education, it’s about money. It’s about breaking the teachers union here in Florida, and it’s political payback by Jeb Bush and his foundation in an effort to turn public education into a capitalist venture.”

Republican Seth McKeel of Lakeland pointed the finger at the opposing side for “political posturing in an election year.”

The proceedings, while orderly for the most part, grew more raucous at times as teachers in the audience defied instructions not to applaud or shout out. Close to 7 p.m., committee Chairman Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, called on security guards to remove one man after he yelled out from the crowd that he was denied the chance to testify.

The House Education Policy Council voted down a slew of amendments from Democrats trying to slow or water down the legislation. One of the minority party’s myriad complaints: the bill would earmark $900 million, or 5 percent, of school districts’ state funding to comply with the mandate.

That set-aside doesn’t apply to Hillsborough. Both the House and Senate would exempt Hillsborough to avoid interfering with the district’s $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Under the grant, the district will continue offering multiyear teaching contracts while working closely with the local teacher’s union to implement a pay system that bases 40 percent of teachers’ pay on student learning gains based on test scores.

Hillsborough teachers would, however, feel the impact of proposed changes to teacher certification, which translate to job insecurity, said Jean Clements, president of the county teachers union.

Starting with the 2014-15 school year, a teacher would be unable to recertify unless he or she could demonstrate that they are “effective” or “highly effective,” based on student performance for four out of the last five years.

“It won’t matter if you actually have tenure,” Clements said. “If you don’t meet the recertification criteria, you’ll be out of a job.”

While Clements was in Tallahassee, teachers-in-training back in Hillsborough held a protest at the University of South Florida.

“I feel like this is degrading to my future profession,” USF junior Samantha Caldwell said of the legislation.

The bill passed the House committee 12-5; the full House is expected to consider the bill Wednesday and Thursday.

After the meeting, Weatherford said he wasn’t surprised by the teachers’ outcry, given their resistance to past conservative education reforms such as school choice and statewide standardized testing.

“All of it was met with a lot of skepticism, thinking that it was going to hurt the education system as a whole,” Weatherford said. “As we now look at it, looking back, we realize it’s actually going to benefit the education system as a whole, and we think that this will be, too.”

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