Teacher Firing Rhee is Celebrity to Florida Lawmakers

Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle  Rhee on Wednesday pressed Florida lawmakers to abolish tenure and fire ineffective teachers in the state’s quest to overhaul its education system.

** FILE ** In this July 17, 2008 file photo, Washington Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Education and Labor Committee. Just a year on the job, Rhee is making bold changes as she tries to accomplish what six would-be reformers in the past decade could not: rescue one of the nation's most dysfunctional school districts. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Tallahassee, FL - Former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee on Wednesday pressed Florida lawmakers to abolish tenure and fire ineffective teachers in the state’s quest to overhaul its education system.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate met Wednesday with Rhee as they prepare to vote on legislation that would change how teachers are paid, partially basing salary bumps on test scores and allowing school boards to put new hires on one-year contracts.

The proposal, a controversial part of Republican lawmakers’ agenda, ran into enormous opposition from teachers last spring and was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The Florida Senate Prek-12 Education Committee started to take testimony on the bill Wednesday and will continue Thursday for five hours, culminating with a vote on the bill, it’s first in a legislative committee this year. The panel’s chairman, and bill sponsor, Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, acknowledged there’s still plenty of work to do on the bill. Lawmakers worked through several amendments Wednesday.

“We just have the skeleton and not the bones and meat on it,” Wise said.

Wise and other legislative leaders invited Rhee, who now serves as an informal adviser to Gov. Rick Scott, to testify before the Senate committee and the House PreK-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee. Lawmakers gave her celebrity treatment and asked for her advice on how best to make over Florida’s schools, despite the state’s recent No. 5 ranking in Education Week.

Rhee wasn’t impressed with that ranking – because it was limited in scope.

“No. 5 in this nation? This nation is not where we need to be in the global marketplace,” Rhee said.

Rhee gained fame, admirers and plenty of enemies in her attempt to shake up the D.C. public schools under former Mayor Adrian Fenty, who lost his re-election bid this fall. She fired long-serving public school teachers who she thought were not performing well and pushed a plan that gave high performing teachers more money if they agreed to give up tenure.
This week, however, an independent arbiter told D.C. public schools that they must rehire 75 teachers that Rhee fired because the district had not properly informed the teachers of why they were being dismissed. Rhee said she is confident that the decision will be overturned.

Some teachers are still wary of Wise’s proposal, noting that attempts around the state and country to create a fair way to measure teachers performance have failed.

Patricia Gardner, the president of Sarasota Classified Teachers’ Association, admitted to teachers that she has been excited about the concept of merit pay for teachers, but has not seen a quality assessment system that would treat teachers fairly. If lawmakers push ahead with an inadequate system, the “best ones [teachers] will leave the state and they won’t come back,” she said.

“I guess what I’m here to ask you, and I hate to be rude, but don’t screw it up,” she said.

The Senate PreK-12 Education Committee meets at 1 p.m. Thursday to continue testimony and vote on the bill.

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