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Michelle Rhee Talks Tenure, Pensions in Florida

Florida lawmakers heaped praise on Michelle Rhee yesterday, during a hearing in which the former DC schools chief backed their efforts to restrict teacher tenure and plugged Gov. Rick Scott's plans to change the state's pension system.

Rhee, who Scott has described as an informal education adviser to his office, addressed the House K-20 Competitiveness Subcommitee. Lawmakers are considering legislation that would phase out teacher tenure and base teacher evaluations partly on student test scores, among other provisions.

A similar measure was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist last year after provoking a firestorm of opposition. Lawmakers are determined to revive it this year.

The former DC schools chancellor, who has gained something of iconic status in education circles, spoke in favor of many of the ideas Floridians are considering, including scaling back tenure protections, a core tenet of the organization she now leads, StudentsFirst. Legislators "should disempower this out-of-date practice," Rhee said.

She did not directly address Scott's controversial state budget, which was unveiled this week and made major cuts to schools (He's being accused of going back on his campaign pledge to maintain K-12 funding).

One of Scott's ideas is to have teachers and other state workers contribute 5 percent of their pay to their pension plans—they don't chip in anything now—which the governor says is needed to cut state costs. Rhee's agenda, by my reading, hasn't included much focus on teacher pension issues so far, but she weighed in on this one, telling lawmakers that in principle she backs the concept of "pension reform," and that in an era when states are scrambling to pay their bills, states are "going to have to bite the bullet" on changing those retirement systems.

In her speech, and in a Q-and-A afterward with the committee, Rhee repeatedly called attention to teachers' hard work and commitment. She said Florida lawmakers need to work just as hard during the legislative process to show educators that the goals of their proposals are not to be punitive, but rather to set higher standards that will ultimately bring greater rewards, financially and otherwise, to educators. Rhee said she wished she'd done more to drive that point home, during her time in the District.

"Make it as clear as possible," Rhee said, "that you are not out to get teachers."

A podcast of the subcommittee's work is avaialble here.

[UPDATE (10:11 a.m.): For the record, here's what Rhee said about Scott's efforts to get teachers to contribute to the pension system:

"In principle, it is in line with our recommendations for states to balance budgets and direct more dollars to the classroom. Nobody expects necessary cuts to be easy. But expecting employees, private and government, to pay a small percentage of their earnings into their retirement accounts and benefits makes sense...In a struggling economy, it is certainly not easy to see anything come away from the bottom line, whether from a family, a private company or a state budget. But states that are seriously minded about public school reform are going to have to bite the bullet in pension reform. I commend Florida for taking this on now."

Many Florida teachers, of course, disagree, arguing that they're underpaid already and that proposed requirement for them to contribute amounts to a pay cut.]

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