Fla. Teacher Merit Pay Advanced in Both Chambers

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

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 23, 2011 --

Key committees in both legislative chambers gave yes votes Wednesday, Feb. 23 to a proposal to partially base teacher salaries on their students’ test scores, a proposal shot down last year after teachers around the state protested that the merit pay system would penalize them.

The measure (SB 736) and a companion House version, would grandfather in current teacher pay plans, but set up new, merit-based ones for teachers hired after July 1, 2014. The proposals also call for an evaluation process to be set up for teachers, but they don’t spell out the details, allowing the Commissioner of Education and local school districts to work out just how teachers would be evaluated.

The Senate Budget Committee voted Wednesday to send its version to the floor – with a technical stop at the Rules Committee to be put on the calendar. The House PreK-20 Competitiveness Committee, meanwhile also voted Wednesday to forward the proposal to its next committee stop. The House bill amended its measure to put it in line with the Senate bill, so both proposals are, for now, the same.

Unlike last year’s measure – SB 6 – the new version would allow the evaluation formula to consider students’ attendance, disciplinary records, disabilities and English proficiency when evaluating teachers for merit pay. It may not, however, set different expectations for students based on gender, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.

But a student’s home life, which would likely be affected by socioeconomic status, has remained a major sticking point for teachers in their opposition to the bill. Many have said that they see students who are dealing with serious problems at home, which takes their focus away from simple math and reading. Some teachers said they should not be penalized financially because their students on the testing day may have a major problem at home over which the teacher has no control.

Megan Allen, the 2010 Florida teacher of the Year, was among those who spoke out against the bill Thursday as both House and Senate committees debated the bill. Allen, who is her family’s bread winner while her husband goes back to school, said if the current proposal becomes law, she might consider leaving her Hillsborough County school, where more than 90 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches. She said she is afraid her pay will suffer if a given class of students does not perform well because of problems outside of the classroom.

“It’s not taking into account many adult life struggles that high poverty students experience each day,” she said.

The bills would require districts to set up evaluation systems that rate teachers as "highly effective," "effective," "needs improvement" or "unsatisfactory." Half of those evaluations would be based on test scores. They would also allow districts to permanently put new hires on one-year contracts instead of the long term agreements that are in place now, making it easier for administrators to fire teachers.

The proposal has been backed by some high profile and politically powerful groups, namely the Florida Chamber of Commerce and former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education advocacy group, the Foundation for Florida’s Future. It has also gained traction in select pockets of teachers around the state.

“It will create a system that focuses on what matters most: Education,” said Savannah Nielson, a middle school teacher from Miami, during the Senate Budget Committee meeting.

The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union, has been milder in its opposition to these proposals compared to last spring, when it reacted to the bill by encouraging members to flood lawmakers offices with e-mails, letters and phone calls. But it does seem to be ramping up efforts to fight the bill as it progresses through the Legislature.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist ultimately vetoed the bill last year, citing concerns of fairness to teachers. Prior to the veto, his office said he received 65,259 phone calls and e-mails in opposition and 3,090 in support, with thousands more left uncategorized.

The bill now appears poised for easy passage though, with Gov. Rick Scott pledging his support to merit pay legislation and both House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos making it a top priority.

Haridopolos told reporters following the Senate vote that he was pleased that the measure was progressing, while acknowledging that some educators still opposed the bill.

“There are some people that are still not happy with the bill, but you know, you’re making a change,” he said. “There’s going to be some of that status quo interrupted.”


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