Teacher Merit Pay Bill Headed to State House Floor
After nearly eight hours of debate and testimony, a House committee on Monday approved a comprehensive education reform measure that would start paying teachers based on student performance rather than length of service, setting it up for a floor vote.
The House Education Policy Council approved the bill (HB 7189) on a party line vote of 12-5 sending to the floor a proposal that would take part of a school's budget to create a “performance fund” to dole out teacher pay raises based on a performance appraisal system where 50 percent is based on student learning gains. Proponents say the system will reward teachers who are dedicated to improving Florida's schools and weed out bad apples.
“I have to tell you teacher quality reform is a hard task and we cannot shy away from it because it's a hard task, because it's unpleasant,” said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey.
Lawmakers scheduled the marathon meeting after the previous House committee hearing for the bill left opponents angry after testimony was cut short and Democrats were not allowed to offer any changes to the bill. During the Monday meeting, 120 people signed up to speak, but lawmakers ran out of time and could not recognize all of the speakers again. Council Chairman Will Weatherford had to ask Capitol security to tell one observer to be quiet after he interrupted the meeting, protesting that he was not allowed to speak though he had stayed for the whole meeting.
The legislation would take 5 percent of a school's total funding for the creation of performance pay, or salary increases, that are half based on performance factors such as class management, advanced degrees and mastery of the subject, and half based on learning gains by students on some sort of exam.
The Department of Education still has to figure out how it would define learning gains and the precise testing mechanism to measure the gains. However, schools are required to create end-of-course exams in all subjects.
The proposal has spurred a highly emotional and political debate among lawmakers and teachers. The concept of measuring educational improvement and quality through testing has been championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and has been pushed during this legislative session by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who doubles as head of the Republican party. Several business organizations also back the legislation, saying the improvement of public schools is tied directly to the economy.
The Senate approved the bill by a 21-17 vote in March.
Teachers turned out in volume Monday to testify against the bill. This came on top of thousands of E-mails, letters and phone calls that have been sent to lawmakers on the issue.
Several teachers and administrators cautioned that with so many unknowns, the legislation could have unintended consequences. Superintendents and school board members said the 5 percent hold back of state funds could create major budget problems especially as state funds shrink. And teachers questioned the assessment process since DOE has yet to determine how learning gains would be determined.
Legg has said that DOE would ensure that teachers would not be penalized for circumstances outside of a teacher's control, like a natural disaster or a student's illness. But some lawmakers and many teachers said the list goes on and on about what would affect a student and whether a teacher is effective.
Kenneth Blankenship, a social studies teacher at Land O'Lakes High School in Pasco County, said the bill would “make education a political football” and that it would not evaluate teachers, but their students, who aren't fully influenced by teachers.
“The most important factor in a student's education is their parents, their home life and their socioeconomic status,” Blankenship said.
Several representatives of Hillsborough County Schools, which has received $100 million for education reform from the Gates Foundation, spoke during the meeting and asked the state to use Hillsborough County as a pilot project to see what merit pay could look like. The school district has been working for years on that type of reform.
Jean Clements, the president of the Hillsborough teacher's union, noted that the union worked with the district on the Gates grant and reform issues, whereas the state teachers' union is opposed to the measure in the Legislature. She asked that lawmakers “let Hillsborough be the learning laboratory for the state.
“We should not choose between collaboration and bold innovation. We should insist on both,” Clements said.
Prior to the debate on HB 7189, the committee approved HB 7053, which would implement end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology, phasing out the ninth and 10th grade FCAT in mathematics and the high school science FCAT.