Florida Governor to Sign Teacher Merit Pay Legislation

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida public school teachers would lose job security but could make more money if their students do well on standardized tests under a trailblazing bill that went to Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday after a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled state House.

The legislation will establish a statewide teacher evaluation and merit pay system in 2014 and do away with tenure for new teachers hired after July 1 this year. It also chips away at teachers' due process and collective bargaining rights.

Scott has made the bill a priority and it's the first legislation sent to the Republican governor since he took office in January. It's similar to legislation his predecessor, Republican-turned independent Charlie Crist, vetoed last year after statewide protests by teachers and their supporters.

The measure is the latest in a series of steps Florida has taken to instill accountability into its education system by relying heavily on student testing to measure success and failure. That includes a grading system to reward top schools and sanction those that fall short. Those changes were instigated by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

"All of us know that measurement works," Scott said at a news conference with GOP legislative leaders shortly after final passage. "We measure students. We know that works."

The bill passed the House 80-39. It cleared the Senate in a largely partisan 26-12 roll call, last week.

Democrats acknowledged the bill is less objectionable than last year's version but said it still has problems including the lack of funding source for the merit pay.

They predicted that would lead either to tax increases or layoffs and reductions in the base pay. Florida teachers already rank near the bottom nationally and are facing pay and benefit reductions in the next budget year as part of spending cuts designed to avoid a potential $3.6 billion shortfall.

"It's amazing to me that the members in this chamber see no harm in paying those to whom they entrust the minds of their children a smaller wage than is paid to those to whom they entrust the plumbing care of their toilets," said Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. "Until we pay teachers a livable wage there's no need to talk about this bill."

Republicans argued that merit pay is a way to attract and retain top teachers while other provisions in the bill will make it easier to get rid of bad ones.

"This is pro-teacher," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-New Port Richey. ""They want to be measured. They want to be recognized for their excellence."

Democratic Rep. Elaine Schwartz, though, said merit pay "is just a euphemism for killing unions" and part of a national movement to diminish public employees' collective bargaining rights.

"This process is a way of making unions useless in the school environment," said the Hollywood lawmaker.

Determinations of which teachers will get merit pay and which will face termination will be made according to an evaluation system. Half of each teacher's evaluation will depend on how much progress their students have made on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) or other exams over a three-year period. The other half would rely on principals' assessments and other factors including advanced degrees -- but only if they are in the teacher's subject area.

"It is a very objective way of evaluating teachers, said Rep. Ana Logan, a Miami Republican who's been a teacher, administrator and school board member. "There are many teachers who can put on a dog and pony show, a very good dog and pony show, but are not very good teachers."

Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, said the legislation is fatally flawed.

"We've looked closely at plenty of scientifically sound, peer reviewed research out there that shows this is the wrong approach to take to implement performance pay and to revamp evaluations," Ford said in a statement.

New teachers who cannot get tenure will face the prospect of being terminated without cause at the end of each school year even if they get top ratings.. School officials will not even be required to let them they why they are being let go.

The bill in many respects mirrors Florida's plan for using a $700 million federal Race to the Top grant. Crist created a diverse panel that included state and local school offiicals and teachers union representatives to develop that plan after he vetoed last year's bill.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, acknowledged that some criticism of that legislation was deserved.

"Last year they said that we rushed the bill through and we probably did. Last year they said that we didn't listen to teachers enough and we probably didn't," Weatherford said. "We have listened, we have learned and we have made this a better product."