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Crist Considering a Veto of Teacher Merit Pay Bill?

Gov. Charlie Crist Wednesday flirted with a possible veto of a controversial teacher merit pay bill, a major priority of Republican lawmakers as well as former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The House is set to vote Thursday on the measure that would partially base teacher salary increases on a student's progress on standardized exams. Teachers have turned out en masse against the measure, flooding lawmakers with thousands of emails, letters and phone calls on the emotionally charged issue.

Crist had initially shown support for the legislation, but hedged a bit when asked about his position by reporters on Wednesday as the House began a marathon floor discussion of the bill leading up to an expected Thursday vote.

“I had a conversation with a friend of many years this weekend who has a significantly handicapped child and was concerned about provisions of the bill that require progress,” Crist said. “And he's like 'How can my child make progress?' It's very challenging. So, it's weighing on me heavily.”

Crist had said earlier in the session that he liked the bill, and Monday, he sent out a release commending House leaders for dedicating an eight hour meeting to fully vet the proposal as well as another education reform bill.

“These bills build on the education reforms that have earned Florida great improvements in academic rankings year after year,” he said in the release. “In fact, today, Florida is 8th in the nation; it is good progress, but we can still do more for our children. I look forward to the continued dialogue and hope to have comprehensive reform bills on my desk for action this session.”

The merit pay issue has been a part of a highly political, partisan fight. The bill, a major priority of Bush's, has also been championed by Republican Party Chair Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and has been referred to as a union busting bill. The teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, largely financed the 2002 candidacy of Bill McBride, Bush's opponent in the gubernatorial race, and has long been opponent of many Republican-proposed education changes.

A veto by Crist could yield plenty of political backlash from his own party in his tight U.S. Senate race with former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio. The business community, typically a strong Republican constituency, has been a major backer of merit pay for teachers. And Bush, who has stayed largely silent on the Crist-Rubio race, could become an instant vocal critic of the governor.

If the bill is not amended by the House, it would this week to Crist for either his signature or veto. If it is, it will bounce back to the Senate. The House was taking up amendments Wednesday night.

The proposal would allow local school boards to negotiate a pay schedule with local teacher unions, but it must base increases on an appraisal system that does not include years of service. Half of the appraisal would be based on learning gains from standardized exams and the other 50 percent would be based on a number of factors, including advanced degrees, management of a class and mastery of subject matter. Teachers who teach in high priority locations or critical shortage areas, such as science and math, have an opportunity to earn differential pay as well.

Teachers have protested that much of their work with students cannot be measured. If the bill becomes law, the Department of Education will be charged with defining learning gains and a testing mechanism to measure those gains.

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