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Lawmakers Begin Ed Reform Talks with 'Superman'

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, December 7, 2010 --

Florida lawmakers got their first taste Tuesday of what is projected to be a long and contentious debate over the future of Florida education reform, attending a screening of “Waiting for Superman,” a pro school-choice documentary that largely blames teachers’ unions for failures in public schools.

The Legislature’s screening of the movie largely underscores what is likely to be a major part of the spring legislative agenda, a bill that will attempt to abolish the current contract standards for teachers and implement merit pay systems that would base teacher pay partially on standardized tests.

Republican lawmakers attempted to push through a similar measure last year, but it was met with a firestorm of criticism from the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, which said the bill was unfair to teachers, particularly special education teachers who could not be evaluated in the same fashion as their colleagues.

Though originally a fan of the proposal, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the bill SB 6, citing concerns about fairness to teachers, a group that would be critical supporters in his battle to become the next U.S. senator from Florida. Crist, running as an independent, lost the Senate bid to Republican Marco Rubio.

Backers of the bill promised the issue would return in the 2011 session. Following through on that promise, House members Tuesday got a screening of “Waiting for Superman” and a panel discussion of potential education reform.

During the panel discussion, state Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville told lawmakers there was a need to look at a variety of changes to Florida’s education system, whether it came from charter schools, merit pay or extending the school day.

“We need to make some systemic changes,” said Wise, a retired teacher and chairman of the Senate Prek-12 Education Committee.

The Senate committee will likely be the first to take up a revamped version of the vetoed teacher merit pay bill. A draft bill has been circulating among several education advocacy groups in Tallahassee. The proposal includes some concessions to concerns voiced by teachers, including one that allows for special education teachers to be evaluated differently than their peers.

Wise said he plans to be the bill’s sponsor and will likely not officially file it until the beginning of March. He has, however, begun meeting with the various education groups and hopes to have several of the stakeholders appear before his education committee before legislators begin serious debate on the proposal.

“I think we’re going to get there, but it’s a real slow process,” he said.

The politics surrounding the bill are the first major obstacle. Last year’s SB 6 became as much a fight between the teachers’ union, one of the last Democratic strongholds in the state, and Republicans who wanted to debilitate their political opposition, as it was between Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

State Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie, who argued against the bill last spring and who appeared on the panel following the showing of the documentary, told lawmakers that the only way any reform package would get through was for lawmakers to put their “egos aside” and to make sure all of the groups, including the union were included.

Leon County Superintendent Jackie Pons, also a panelist, said he was all for merit pay if the Legislature could find a way to pay for it, but he too noted the politics displayed in the documentary, particularly the anti-union sentiment, were not helpful to solving the problem.

“I think we should all leave our politics at home,” he said.

The Republicans hold a 28-12 advantage in the Senate and an 81-39 majority in the House, meaning they do not need Democratic votes to pass a measure. Gov.-elect Rick Scott has also said he favors a merit pay bill, making it likely that he will sign off on it as well.

Wise said he fully expects his vice chair Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, and committee member Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, to be fully involved in any discussions the committee has regarding the bill and in reaching out to the various groups. Montford is also the executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. He also wants a 40-0 vote on the bill in the Senate if possible.

“I want them [Democrats] to play,” he said.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow said union representatives have been discussing the issue with the other education advocacy groups, including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, the group that has been largely behind the legislation. Pudlow acknowledged that the issue could again prove divisive, but that everyone was still trying to talk and work together.

“At least people are saying the right things,” he said. “Whether they do it is another matter.”


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