Teachers Setting Up for a Long Fight on Merit Pay
Florida House members will get their chance next week to debate at length a controversial education reform measure that would link teacher pay raises to student performance on standardized tests.
And public school teachers will be packing the room in protest of the legislation.
The measure (HB 7189, SB 6) has turned into an ugly source of controversy, pitting Republican lawmakers against the teachers' union in a fight over how educators should be paid. Proponents contend that teachers should be compensated based largely on results produced. Teachers say that is already the case and that the bill unfairly targets them by not taking into account external factors that could affect a student's performance on test day.
The House Education Policy Council has scheduled a meeting for Monday to take testimony on two pieces of legislation: HB 7189 on merit pay and HB 7053, which requires students to take more difficult classes to graduate high school. But the bulk of the day will be spent on the merit pay bill.
The legislation, already approved by the Senate, would link teacher pay in part to student learning gains, create end-of-course exams on a district level basis and essentially eliminate any sort of tenure program for new teachers. Proponents of the measure say it will weed out the bad apples in the teaching profession while rewarding good teachers with higher pay.
“We need to make sure we're rewarding our best teachers,” Education Policy Council Chair Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told the News Service last month. “We have so many great teachers in the state of Florida and we've got to find creative ways to reward them.”
But it has also created outrage among public school officials. A representative of the school board association told senators last month that the plan has “done more to damage morale than anything I've seen in a long time” and the teachers' union bemoaned it was shut out of negotiations.
A previous House meeting on the bill evolved into chaos when a vote was taken without hearing amendments from Democrats and allowing few teachers to testify. Rep. Marty Kiar,D-Davie, called the meeting a “sham” and Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, referred to it as a “miscarriage of justice.”
In response, the House Education Policy Council, the bill's final stop before it goes before the entire House, scheduled eight hours for teachers and others to air their concerns about the bill on Monday.
Teachers have flooded lawmakers’ offices with emails, letters and phone calls. A spokeswoman for Senate President Jeff Atwater said the President had also received about 30 voice mails on the issue from students during the school day over the past few weeks.
One student, a junior at Park Vista High School in Palm Beach County, wrote Atwater a handwritten letter saying that basing salaries on test scores “is beyond ridiculous.”
“I believe that teachers are there to teach students and actually educate them, not spend 3/4 of the school year preparing for one test,” she wrote.
The Florida Education Association has also launched a Facebook group called NO Tallahassee Takeover and an accompanying Twitter feed to rally support against the legislation. It has also released a TV and radio spot to run in select markets. A spokesman for the FEA wouldn't release how much the media spots cost or how long they would air.
“It will run as long as we think is necessary,” said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow.
Some education advocates have warned that the legislation could drive teachers away from the state and that it does not take into account circumstances beyond a teacher's control like socioeconomic factors, natural disasters like a hurricane or illness. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, had proposed an amendment during the Senate debate to address that issue but withdrew it, saying he simply didn't have the votes. Kiar has proposed an identical change to the House version.
Daniel W. Fortner, Sr., a teacher at Booker Middle School in Sarasota, wrote Atwater, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who sponsored the Senate bill, and Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, saying he fears that even if he does earn merit pay, his potential for future earnings would be cut under the proposal.
“Unfortunately my family and I have come to the conclusion that, should the bill pass, we will move to another state,” Fortner wrote. “One that appreciates teachers and is willing to compensate them accordingly.”
Proponents of the bill will likely be out in force at the committee meeting as well.
The Associated Industries of Florida sent out a release Friday morning attacking the FEA for its opposition to the legislation. And the Florida Chamber of Commerce has also been a big supporter of the proposal.
“It’s time to institute a better process that results in better-prepared students and we can affect the greatest impact by changing how we evaluate and reward our teachers,” said Barney Bishop, AIF President. “Being evaluated based on the results produced and rewarded for a job well-done with additional compensation are not anomalous methods for determining employment status or pay.”
The Foundation for Florida's Future, a Jeb Bush-backed think tank on education, has also been pushing the legislation. Bush, who ran against the FEA-backed gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride in 2002, has long been a proponent of merit pay for teachers.