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New Teacher Merit Pay Details Emerge

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

Tallahassee, FL - The highly contentious teacher merit pay proposal that was shot down by Gov. Charlie Crist last spring has re-emerged, but with some preliminary concessions to teachers and also perhaps to Gov.-elect Rick Scott, who as the father of a special education teacher voiced concerns about the proposal’s fairness to some educators.

A draft of new legislation that would base half of teacher pay raises on student test scores, similar to the bill vetoed last year by Crist, is circulating among education advocacy groups in Tallahassee and potentially setting up a replay of last spring’s politically-charged debate over how teachers should be compensated.

But the new draft language contains some major concessions to the last year’s opponents and possibly Scott, who though supportive of teacher merit pay as a candidate, acknowledged he thought the original bill could have been improved. In particular, the new draft language directly states that teachers of students with disabilities would not be evaluated by their students’ performances on standardized exams, but rather on measures outlined in individual student education plans.

Special education teachers were a significant part of the opposition to the original vetoed bill, known as SB 6. Crist cited the issue – whether a teacher should be punished because their students had disabilities and had a harder time improving on exams – in rejecting the bill. That veto was one of a couple last year that solidified the break between Crist and the Republicans in the Legislature, resulting in Crist’s departure from the party at the end of the session.

Scott has mentioned his daughter’s career as a special education teacher throughout the campaign and said several times that he felt that any bill dealing with merit pay had to be fair to all teachers.

Trey Stapleton, a spokesman for the Scott transition, said Thursday that he did not believe Scott had spoken to anyone in Tallahassee about the pending new legislation, but that the issue of education and merit pay were at the top of his priority list.

“He’s very much into monitoring and ensuring that people are productive,” Stapleton said. “He’s definitely about accountability and holding people accountable.”

The original bill generated a mountain of controversy and infuriated teachers across the state who challenged the notion that their effectiveness should be based on students’ test scores. In particular, teachers questioned whether students with special needs or students of lower socioeconomic status, who might have a harder time learning, would harm a teacher’s earning ability – in turn, making it harder to find teachers willing to work with such children.

The bill also had significant political undertones. The proposal was a pet project of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundation, the Foundation for Florida's Future, and it was directly opposed by the teachers’ union, which largely funded Bush’s 2002 gubernatorial opponent Bill McBride. It was also sponsored by the head of the Republican Party, Sen. John Thrasher and supported by many Republican-leaning groups such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Florida Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman Edie Ousley said that the Chamber expects to be fully involved in the issue again during the 2011 legislative session and that while the state has made strides in education reform, the state’s schools still were not good enough.

“The state has very strong English arts and math standards, good charter school laws and accountability standards,” she said. “But we’ve got a lot of work to do to make sure students are prepared for college and prepared for the workforce.”
The draft language also contains some other changes from the original SB 6. The bill vetoed by Crist required that the state hold back 5 percent of a school district’s budget to pay for the teacher raises. The new version being floated this week in Tallahassee says nothing about where the money will come from.

The new draft also addresses the issue of tenure, which underpinned the debate over SB 6.

Under the draft language, a newly hired teacher would be put on a probationary contract for one year, during which he or she could be fired at any time. Then for three years, teachers would be placed on annual contracts, where after the end of a school year, administrators could choose whether or not to renew the contract.

After those three years, a teacher is eligible for a professional contract, which runs for three years before the teacher is subject to renewal.

Newly elected state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who is also executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said a group of superintendents began meeting over the summer to discuss their own ideas for a merit pay measure. The group objected to SB 6, but has been generally in favor of teacher merit pay. It has not yet developed any draft legislation, but the group has also been meeting with Bush’s education foundation to discuss possible tweaks to the draft before it is officially filed with the Legislature.

“We knew this was coming back,” he said.

So far, no lawmaker has been officially attached to the bill as a sponsor, and Thrasher did not return calls seeking comment.


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