Tallahassee, FL - In a subdued and mostly empty committee room a Senate committee gave the first up vote Thursday to a new bill setting out how teachers would be paid.
The anticlimactic 3-0 vote came with many of those teachers still not in agreement on the bill, but without the angry protests of last year’s effort.
One of the differences with this year’s move to make classroom teachers more accountable for quality education in the state has been that those teachers have been more involved, although there are still many with deep concerns – and questions - about how they’ll be evaluated if the measure becomes law.
One of the major sources of concern for teachers isn’t what’s in the bill (SB 736) that was unanimously approved in its first committee stop Thursday – it’s what’s not in the bill.
The measure calls for an evaluation process to be set up for teachers, but doesn’t spell out the details, leaving it up to the Commissioner of Education and local school districts – in consultation with a panel including represenatives of school boards, superintendents and the state teacher union - to work out just how teachers would be evaluated.
The teacher union, the Florida Education Association, opposes the bill, though its leaders say they appreciate being asked to help work out the details. One of the main reasons the union is still against it is the uncertainty about just what it is that may get a teacher fired in the future.
“You’re asking all of us to put all our professional careers on the line for something that hasn’t even been developed yet,” Andy Ford, president of the FEA, told the Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee on Thursday, saying that the bill is “very troubling to teachers.”
Still, it’s a calmer and more collaborative start than last year, when a measure eliminating teacher tenure and directly linking teacher pay to the standardized test performance of students emerged quietly during the legislative session and was passed despite heavy protests from educators, who said then they felt shut out of the process. It was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, who is no longer in office.
“It has been much different,” acknowledged Ford, speaking to this year’s bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Wise, a congenial and results-oriented legislator who doesn’t appear to be bent on fighting the teacher’s union – typically a bastion of support for Democrats - for political reasons. That was an accusation leveled against last year’s backers of the bill. “You have given people an opportunity to at least express their concerns.”
Wise, who patiently listened to testimony from teachers for two days this week, also noted the difference as the committee prepared to vote hours before it was scheduled to because there wasn’t anyone left who wanted to complain about the proposal.
“It is not Senate Bill 6,” Wise said, referring to last year’s measure. “It’s Senate Bill 736.”
Wise also promised the union and teachers who spoke to his committee on Thursday that he’ll continue to listen to them and to work on improving the bill.
“We don’t have all the answers,” Wise admitted.
Wise made that remark after listening to some concerns from Jennifer Barnhill, a teacher who works with disabled and emotionally and behaviorally disturbed students, who said she worried that an evaluation mechanism, when it is eventually decided on, could hurt deeply caring teachers who need longer to see gains in learning than the politicians might want to give them. One of her students just this month was committed, because he stopped taking his medication for bipolar disorder. She needs more time to see learning gains in such students, she said.
“A good day for me is when I don’t get cursed out, and desks don’t go flying across the room,” said Barnhill who teaches at an alternative school in Tallahassee. “These are my realities every day.”
She’s not complaining – “I could not teach another population … I’ve found my calling,” Barnhill said. But, teachers of those types of students can’t be measured the same as teachers of more mainsteam students because learning may be slower in that environment, she said.
That prospect makes finding a way to evaluate teachers difficult, Wise acknowledges.
“I think this perplexes all of us,” he said. That’s part of the reason he wants a long look at how teachers will be evaluated, even if it means the bill may pass without spelling it out.
But the unknown is the stumbling block for many teachers.
The bill doesn’t end tenure for current teachers – as last year’s bill would have done.
Current teachers are grandfathered into the system they were hired under – they may be able to keep their current long-term contracts, though they’ll still have to be evaluated under the system that is eventually develolped, and could lose their jobs if their students don’t perform well on standardized tests.
New teachers, those hired starting in July, would be on one-year contracts, subject to annual review starting in 2014.
In the meantime, teachers will also have to be evaluated under a new, parallel program that was set up as part of the Race to the Top grant program, under which the state won a large pot of money from federal officials.
The committee earlier this week heard from Michelle Rhee, something of a celebrity in conservative school reform circles. The former District of Columbia schools chief won plaudits for firing teachers deemed ineffective and taking a hard line toward underperforming schools.
The union’s Ford urged lawmakers not to fall in line with “reformers” who simply blame teachers for all education woes – particularly if the state doesn’t find ways to help them get better.
“Florida cannot fire its way to excellence,” Ford said. Looking to Rhee for guidance was particularly irksome.
“Washington, D.C. is at the bottom of the Quality Counts report,” he said, referring to an Education Week report that recently was touted by some state officials and legislators for giving Florida high marks.
“Florida is No. 5,” Ford noted. “I don’t know why we’re looking at Washington, D.C. as a model for anything.”
The Senate bill now goes to the education budget committee, where it’s on the agenda for next Tuesday. So far, there is no House bill.