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Opposition to Merit Pay Bill Organizes 10,000 Calls for Veto

More than 10,000 phone calls. More than 15,000 E-mails and letters. They mostly tell Gov. Charlie Crist the same thing – veto SB 6.

Since Republican lawmakers first proposed legislation in early March that would link teacher pay to student performance on standardized exams, teachers have gone on the offensive -- writing, calling, showing up at legislative meetings, all telling lawmakers that a test can't measure their effectiveness in the classroom.

It has generated more public reaction than any other single piece of legislation over the past few years.

“I haven't even seen anything close to this. This is the biggest education overhaul I've seen in my 35 years here,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association.

Gov. Charlie Crist seemed to be a proponent of the measure as recently as last Monday, sending out a press release saying he looked forward to seeing the legislation on his desk. But then a few days later as public pressure against the bill mounted, he vacillated, telling reporters he had some concerns about the bill and that he was “listening to the people of Florida - my boss.”
Between March 1 and April 9, the governor's office received 10,247 calls against the bill and 71 in support of it, a spokesman said Monday. He has also received 15, 454 E-mails and letters in opposition to the proposal and 66 in support. That doesn't include 9,000 additional E-mails the staff hasn’t yet read.

Despite the outpouring of veto requests, some of Crist's associates maintain he will sign the bill by the April 16 deadline.

Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who was appointed by Crist and whose staff helped draft the legislation, said last Friday that he expected the governor to “do the right thing” and Republican Party Chair John Thrasher, who sponsored the Senate bill, said he isn't worried that the public outcry will influence Crist. Thrasher said Crist had previously promised to sign the bill, but he added that he has not spoken to the governor since it passed the House early Friday morning. Critics say the state’s teachers’ union is generating a false grass roots uprising.

“I'm not worried at all,” Thrasher told the News Service Monday. “I still rely on what he told me and you know any interest group in the state can generate lots of E-mails and lots of phone calls. That's possible to do. If we start basing public policy on whoever can generate the most phone calls and who can generate the most E-mails, that's pretty poor public policy in my opinion.”

The political implications of how it could affect Crist and his Senate campaign are also a part of the equation. If he vetoes the bill, he would alienate many Republican lawmakers who made the legislation a priority, as well as the wing of the GOP that remains closely aligned with former Gov. Jeb Bush, whose education foundation is a major backer of the measure.

But Crist has bucked the party in favor of public opinion before. He extended voting hours in the 2008 election due to massive turnout, though it did not benefit GOP presidential candidate John McCain. He has been strongly opposed to higher property insurance rates despite lawmaker pressure to let the market dictate those rates, and has been wildly pro consumer on utility issues when it didn’t always match his party’s general outlook.

Several Miami-Dade school teachers declared a “sickout” Monday in protest of the teacher merit pay bill. And at a weekend campaign stop at The Villages, Crist was approached by several people who urged him to veto the legislation, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

The legislation, SB 6, would base teacher pay raises on a performance appraisal determined by local school districts. But 50 percent of that appraisal would be based on student learning gains on standardized exams. The Department of Education, if the bill is signed, would develop metrics to measure learning gains.

Representatives of the school boards and superintendents say they're not opposed to paying teachers based on results, and finding a way to root out inadequate educators. But portions of the bill remain problematic, and stakeholders have expressed concerns that it could create divisiveness among the teachers, administrators and school boards.

The legislation also takes 5 percent of a district's overall funding and requires that it be used specifically for a teacher performance fund rather than other district needs, taking away local control, Blanton said

The three biggest education groups in the debate – the teachers' union, the superintendents and the school boards – all say they have no idea which way the governor will go.

“Most of the time I have my own gut feeling,” said Bill Montford, executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “But this time I have no idea. I'm sure it's a tough call for the governor. It's an ever tougher call to guess what he's going to do.”

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