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Bill to End Tenure, Create Merit Pay Awaits Florida Governor's Signature

Last year, a bill that would have eliminated tenure for new hires in Florida and required districts to pay teachers based on how well they perform went down with a gubernatorial veto.

How things can change in just a year: A very similar measure is now all but a done deal in the Sunshine State.

The bill, S.B. 736, passed the House today by a straight party-line vote and needs only Gov. Rick Scott's signature before it becomes law. He's already expressed support for the measure.

It is very similar to one that passed the legislature last year—so similar, in fact, that critics have called it "Son of Six" as a reference to last year's S.B. 6, which was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Among other things, S. 736:

• Requires 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation to be based on state standardized tests or other national, local, or industry measures for those subjects not gauged at the state level;
• Requires evaluations to consider four levels of teacher performance;
• As of July 1 of this year, ends the awarding of "continuing" and "professional service" contract status (the Florida equivalent of tenure) and puts all new teachers on annual contracts;
• Permits districts to extend annual contracts only to teachers with good evaluations; those with two "unsatisfactory" ratings in a row, or two "needs improvement" ratings within a three-year period, could not be renewed;
• "Grandfathers" in teachers who now have tenure but allows them to be dismissed for the performance reasons stated above;
• Requires districts to establish performance-based salary schedules by July 1, 2014, for all new hires, and to phase existing teachers onto the new schedules as student-growth measures are developed; and
• Does away with layoffs based on reverse seniority.

There are a few provisions in here that seem to nod at professional development, such as a line that allows districts to consider peer assistance- and -review programs. But that's clearly not enough to garner support from teachers' unions, who wanted to stop the tenure-elimination and merit-pay provisions, period.

The Florida Education Association has already indicated that it plans to file a lawsuit to try to revoke or block the bill once it has been signed into law.

A number of issues remain to be hashed out about this legislation once it goes into effect.

For one, Florida has just one district in the state that has an extensive testing system of the kind envisioned in this bill and that has taken steps to align teacher evaluation and pay systems with such a system. But in that district, Hillsborough County, the testing system wasn't the result of a mandate. Instead, the assessments were the end-product of a close working relationship spanning 25 years between the district and the local teachers' union on the development of curricula and standards.

There is also a matter of costs. Leaving aside the expense of moving to a performance-pay system, creating lots of new tests and doing it well is not a particularly cheap or easy venture. And Gov. Scott has made it clear he wants to reduce state spending on K-12 education.

Republicans, normally considered more stingy with the purse, nevertheless were the force behind this legislation. Conversely, Democrats have criticized it for its potential costs. One local news story from the Orlando Sentinel outlines a lot of those tensions and quotes a Democratic lawmaker as saying that the measure "is the mother of all unfunded mandates."

FEA President Andy Ford blasted the bill in a statement. "Despite the mantra about local control and less government we hear from lawmakers, this bill reduces a school district's flexibility and authority over teacher evaluations, pay schedules and working conditions," he said. "This bill gives new power and authority to the Florida Department of Education and the Legislature. It's not good for students, it's not good for teachers and it's not grounded in sound research."

On the other hand, Republican lawmakers, as well as state Commissioner of Education Eric Smith, praised it.

"This legislation is special because it elevates the teaching profession to the esteemed level it deserves and provides us with opportunities to highlight effective teachers while promoting improvement in those who are less effective," Smith said in a statement.

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