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Teacher Merit Pay Bill Awaits Governor’s Pen

The future of public school teacher pay is in the hands of Gov. Charlie Crist after a House Republican majority early Friday morning approved a measure linking educator salaries to standardized testing after an overnight session.

The governor has been coy, though, about what he might do with the bill. He told Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the Senate sponsor of the measure, that he intended to sign it, but publicly hinted he might wield the veto pen. He told reporters Thursday morning that he hadn't yet made a decision and planned on watching the House debate.

“The more you listen, the more you learn,” Crist said. “There are things I like and things that give me some concern,” in the bill. I'm listening to the people of Florida - my boss.”

The legislation, which was passed by the Senate two weeks ago, would take 5 percent of a school's funding to create a performance pay fund, which would dole out salary increases based on two criteria. The first would be overall performance factors such as class management, subject mastery and an advanced degree. The second part of a teacher's evaluation would be based on learning gains made by students on standardized exams.

Proponents of the legislation said teachers should be paid on results, not on years of service.

“We have to find a way to pay these great teachers more,” said Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, the chair of the House Pre-K-12 budget committee.

The debate over the bill has been a highly political and partisan process. The proposal has been championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation and opposed by the teachers' union, which financed Bush's 2002 gubernatorial opponent, Bill McBride.

House members spent more than nine hours debating the measure into the wee hours of the morning, voting at 2:26 a.m., despite a virtual lock down by Republicans on the bill. Several amendments offered over the last few days were struck down angering Democrats and some Republicans who noted that the bill still needed some work.
Thrasher noted to reporters earlier Thursday, however, that a separate measure could clean up potential concerns with the legislation.

“If the bill passes today, if it passes in the House today, there's always an option, somebody can call a glitch bill, somebody can call a reconciliation bill to fix some issues that are out there in respect to implementation - not in respect to the overall policy,” he said.

Lawmakers have been flooded with thousands of letters, E-mails and phone calls over the issue and teachers have turned out in bulk to protest the legislation, backed by Democratic legislators who came out swinging during floor debate Thursday night. Most Republican lawmakers have remained steady in their support for the bill though.

Democratic Leader Franklin Sands said that lawmakers should be more considerate of teachers' opinions because they know how the measure will affect them, not lawmakers.
“This is like spending a night at a Holiday Inn ... and waking up an expert, and all of a sudden knowing what's best for our teachers,” said Sands, D-Weston. Eleven Republicans split from the party to side with the Democrats in the final vote, which was 64-55.

Julio Robaina, R-Miami, who voted against the legislation, said that the numerous unknowns of the bill concerned him.

The Department of Education still must determine how it would define learning gains and the testing mechanism to measure those gains. The department was involved in the drafting of the legislation and has been working closely with Vanderbilt University, which has done significant education research, on how to develop this criteria.

“It's got a lot of good provisions in there, but it's not complete,” Robaina said. We've got a lot of work to do.”

Education Commissioner Eric Smith has told lawmakers they will be ready to work on implementation should the bill pass. He has also said that the measure could help the state in its application for the second round of competition for the federal Race to the Top grant.

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