With passage of new legislation, Florida government is targeting the teachers

Four days before the Florida Legislature convened for the beginning of its 2011 session, approximately 700 schoolteachers and their supporters gathered at three different locations in Pinellas County to protest a litany of legislative proposals aimed directly at their pocketbooks and their job status.

In St. Petersburg, at the corner of Tyrone Boulevard and 66th Street, Mona Klingman held a sign that read "Save Our Public Schools." A kindergarten teacher at Lynch Elementary, Klingman said, "I just feel there's such negativity now. Teachers used to be thought of highly, and I don't feel that way at all... I feel we're not supported — there are so many cuts coming, and that's why I feel like public school isn't a priority anymore."

It's not a surprising sentiment. Although Governor Rick Scott said he wouldn't touch education spending during the campaign, he reversed himself when he unveiled his proposed budget, announcing that he wanted to cut per-student funding by 10 percent, or $703 a student. That cut would come on top of tens of millions in shortfalls facing many districts because of major reductions in tax revenues.

Chuck Kiker of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association says he fails to see the logic in having all 67 counties do more with less money. "Why would you impose these types of things and make them happen as early as July 1st of this year?" he barks. Such a cut would remove over $100 million from Hillsborough's school district, and over $80 million from Pinellas'.

Pension schemes

Maureen Otteni, who teaches at Westgate Elementary, objects to a central feature of the new legislation: the requirement that teachers start putting their own money into the state's retirement fund. She thinks schoolteachers have become the fall guys in an attempt to shore up a $3.6 billion deficit.

"The solution is targeting teachers' pensions? It should be targeting the wealthy."

Although mainstream sentiment seems to have coalesced around the idea that public employees should start doing what the private sector began doing a long time ago, teachers see the pension contributions as costing them money to do a job for which they're already inadequately compensated.

A report released by the NEA found that Florida teachers' average salaries have fallen to 47th in the nation, which makes the prospect of having to pay into their own pensions even more unappealing.

Jennifer Sinphray, who teaches math at Dixon High School, says she makes $2,000 less than a year go after the state began cutting bonus checks she had earned for being a nationally board-certified teacher.

"Now they want to take more money out of my check to put in a different retirement system. I already take more money out of my check to put in a different retirement system, because the retirement they're offering isn't sufficient."

Questionable merit

Last week, on just the third day of the legislative session, the Florida state Senate passed SB 736, an education reform bill that would more closely tie teacher evaluation to student performance. The House began discussions on a companion bill as well, and will debate it this week.

The bill would leave untouched current pay plans for teachers already on the job. But new teachers would get raises based on merit and would not enjoy the tenure-like protections they currently have. Teachers who earn two "unsatisfactory" ratings within three years could be fired. Tenured teachers can opt out of the merit system, but they will face the possibility of dismissal because of unsatisfactory evaluations anyway. And districts that face layoffs would be required to use teacher evaluation scores — not seniority — to determine who keeps their job.

The bill's sponsor in the state Senate, Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville), says that the merit option would go into effect in 2014.

Wise has said that unlike SB 6, a similar bill that Governor Crist vetoed after being lobbied by teachers and public education advocates, SB 736 has received much more input by teachers and even unions. Even one of its harshest critics, Pinellas County Classroom Teachers Association union leader Kim Black, agrees that is true. But one of Black's strongest objections is the component that requires student performance to count 50 percent in the evaluation of a teacher.

Black says that she has "grave concerns" about that measure being controlled by Tallahassee, not Pinellas. She cites the fact that a pilot program being used to evaluate 15 different schools this year in Pinellas has "improved dramatically," in terms of accurately gauging teacher performance, but still has a ways to go.

As an example, she says that a teacher who doesn't teach an FCAT core subject, such as Art or P.E., "would be receiving their portion of their evaluation based on the school's grade, and the teachers really feel and I agree with them that's not really fair — that you can't control who's in your class, what knowledge they're bringing. The teachers in the struggling schools have deep concerns how we would attract and retain teachers to schools where students are struggling."

Those concerns are echoed across the bay by the Hillsborough County Classroom Teachers Association. Its president, Jean Clements, says that the high emphasis on student test scores means the state will be basing 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation on "something they (the state) can't do right." Hillsborough County bases 40 percent of its evaluations on test scores, but they're doing it over three years of student learning — and even then, says Clements, "the error range is still huge."

Lawmakers have now incorporated the three-year evaluation period into SB 736. But Clements thinks that the rest of the state should take even more cues from Hillsborough's experiments, which have been promising enough that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided a $100 million grant in 2009 to help overhaul how teachers are trained and evaluated.

But Pasco County Republican state Senator Mike Fasano says the merit system actually would reward good teachers — those who brought student performance up from numbers that were "embarrassing" years ago without being compensated. "That's wrong. And I believe those teachers who have gone the extra mile...that have made that commitment, and 99 percent of them do make that commitment, they should be rewarded for getting us to number five in the country."

Union, No

Florida legislators want to defang public employee unions by going after collective bargaining, à la Wisconsin and Indiana. GOP State Senator John Thrasher's SB 830 would prohibit dues deductions for any union, and would prohibit the use of dues for political activity unless there is written authorization from each member each year. That particular bill barely made it out of the Senate Community Affairs Committee on a 5-4 vote on Monday, showing that such anti-union legislation may have a hard time getting through the entire Legislature.

Ron Meyer, an attorney representing the Florida Education Association, says that because Florida is a right-to-work state (which means people only join a union voluntarily), it's absurd to claim that its financial problems lay at the hands of teachers. "That's like applying a square peg into a round hole of Florida law," he maintains, adding that collective bargaining has worked "just fine" over the past 40 years in Florida, and considers it "ill-advised to change this practice at this point."

The fact that joining a union is something that a schoolteacher can do on a voluntary basis is why some collective bargaining groups in the state struggle with membership.

Meanwhile, House Bill 1023 would require unions representing less than 50 percent of employees eligible for membership to recertify by July 1 or be disbanded, which could prevent groups like the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association from even coming to the table.

Adding to the belief among teachers that the anti-union measures are purely political and vindictive is the fact that police and firefighter unions would be exempt from the 50 percent requirement. (In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker exempted those two unions from his budget repair bill, saying those in public safety should be treated differently.)

It's debatable

Although the Senate has already slammed down its teacher reform bill, a companion House bill isn't nearly as far along. St. Petersburg Democrat Darryl Rouson says such legislation needs to "be fully vetted, fairly debated, and we want the teachers to feel valued at the end of the day."

But with the House scheduled to vote on their version of the bill earlier this week, that seems doubtful indeed.

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