Business Groups Make Last Ditch Push on Senate Bill 6
As the clock keeps ticking on a controversial teacher merit pay bill, the Florida business community made a final public pitch Tuesday to Gov. Charlie Crist to sign the legislation into law.
“We need to raise professional standards, we need to retain the best teachers,” said Marshall Criser III, chairman of the Florida Council of 100, a pro-business public policy advocacy group, at a news conference aimed to put public pressure on Crist to sign the bill.
The bill, SB 6, which links teacher pay to student results on standardized exams, has been a critical part of Republican lawmakers' agenda. But Crist, once a vocal supporter of teacher merit pay, is now wavering. And the Friday deadline before which he must sign or veto the bill is looming.
Crist's education commissioner, Eric Smith, has said he believes the governor will sign the bill, but was noticeably absent from the business group's press conference, though he was listed on the media advisory alerting reporters of the event. And Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the Senate sponsor of the legislation and Republican Party Chair, has also said Crist had promised to sign it.
Not so, Crist told reporters Tuesday morning. Three times during a press availability before a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Crist said had not assured Thrasher he would sign the bill, which Crist said is the most heavily lobbied bill since he became governor.
“Sometimes people hear what they want to hear," Crist said
The legislation links teacher salary increases to student performance on standardized exams, essentially abolishing any form of tenure. Representatives of the teachers' union, the superintendents association and the school board association have all said they agree with the measure in concept, but its implementation could create major problems for districts around the state and cause major divisiveness between administrators and educators.
Opponents of the legislation have said repeatedly that external factors affecting students, such as socioeconomics or a bad family situation, could have major impacts on a child's ability to perform and could hurt a teacher's ability to earn a higher salary over time.
The business community has been an overwhelming supporter of the legislation, promoting a better educated workforce as the key to pulling Florida out of the recession. Backers say no teacher would lose any salary because of the measure, but high performing teachers would have a chance to earn more.
“This is a serious policy issue,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association, hand delivered a veto letter to Crist's office Monday. His major issue is the budget change included in the bill, which requires that 5 percent of a district's overall funding be used to pay for the salary bumps and development of end-of-course assessments. That could create headaches for school boards, Blanton said, when they might need to put the money elsewhere.
“The concept of teacher performance, we have no problem with that,” he said. “I have no problem setting up a new system to get rid of unsatisfactory teachers ...But to do that with no input and no discussion just flies in the face of everything we've been trying to do with Race to the Top and all that other stuff.”
The school boards, superintendents and unions have all been discussing changes that could result from the federal grant competition, Race to the Top, which could bring $700 million in education dollars to the state. Blanton said the education community's input was widely sought for that, but not the merit pay legislation.
“This bill was sprung on the entire education community with no discussion beforehand,” he said.
Thrasher has admitted the legislature may have to look at an additional measure to clean up possible glitches with implementation or other concerns from the education community. But business leaders and other backers of the legislation, said that's no reason for Crist to veto the bill.
“Paying good teachers more for outcomes is what this is all about,” Wilson said.
But the business community's lobbying may not be enough to persuade Crist, who has frequently bucked the party line in favor of what's popular among voters. Crist's office has been deluged with phone calls, emails and letters urging him to kill the merit pay legislation. He's also been hit by veto requests while on the campaign trail.
The Florida Education Association has launched a media assault on the bill and orchestrated write-in campaigns against it. Crist's office alone received 10,247 calls against the bill and 71 in support of it, and 15, 454 E-mails and letters in opposition to the proposal and 66 in support, between March 1 and April 9. That doesn't include 9,000 additional E-mails the staff hasn't yet read. State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan, who tried abolishing teacher tenure as education commissioner more than a decade ago, refused to put odds on a veto of the merit-pay bill, but said it was clear that supporters of the legislation underestimated the cascade of opposition coming from the Florida Education Association, teachers, parents and students.
"I think a lot of people didn't anticipate the push back," said Brogan, "I did, not because I'm smart. But because I've been there. The FEA is a well-oiled machine. And they can bring the acid rain when they have an issue they really care about."