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Florida Could End Teacher Tenure, Embrace Merit Pay

Judi Mulligan, a fourth-grade teacher at Sand Pine Elementary north of Tampa, says she's worried about the bill's effect on teacher morale.
Scott Finn
Judi Mulligan, a fourth-grade teacher at Sand Pine Elementary north of Tampa, says she's worried about the bill's effect on teacher morale.

The Florida Legislature passed some of the nation's most sweeping changes for teachers last week. They would phase out teacher tenure and would tie salaries, in part, to student test scores.

So far, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist says he's not made up his mind about the bill, but teachers are pressuring him to veto it.

'A Kick In The Stomach'

Last week, before Friday's final vote on the proposal, 30 teachers stood in front of Sand Pine Elementary in suburban Tampa holding protest signs that said "Stop Senate Bill 6." Fourth-grade teacher Judi Mulligan says the bill is just another sign that lawmakers don't respect teachers.

"To look at what legislators are saying, it's kind of like a kick in the stomach to everybody. It makes us feel like we're not worthwhile or important," Mulligan says.

But state Sen. John Thrasher, the bill's sponsor and Florida's GOP chairman, says he does respect teachers.

"I respect them every day," Thrasher says. On the Senate floor, he pointed to his daughter, a former teacher, in the gallery.

"She's told me she's not fearful of this bill. Because she thinks that when this bill passes, it's going to inspire teachers to get into the classroom and do a better job than they've been doing, even now," Thrasher says.

'Very Big And Very Bold'

If the bill is signed into law, there'd be no more tenure for new teachers. Instead, they'd be hired on one-year contracts. There would also be a lot more testing of students. Teacher raises would depend on how much progress students make on standardized tests. And if students don't show learning gains for four of five years, a teacher could lose certification.

Florida's long been at the forefront of education changes, but this bill surprises Sandi Jacobs of the National Council on Teacher Quality.

"What Florida is considering is really very big and very bold. And while other states have passed related pieces, what Florida is proposing would really be very unprecedented," Jacobs says.

Jacobs' group supports the Florida proposal. Studies show that students excel when they have high-quality teachers, although other experts debate whether merit pay helps. Florida's bill echoes President Obama's Race to the Top program, which offers about $4 billion in education grants nationwide. Florida was heavily favored to win a federal grant from the program, but it lost out to Tennessee and Delaware. Those states had the support of teachers unions, while Florida mostly did not.

The Governor In The Middle

Now, teachers are flooding Republican Gov. Charlie Crist with e-mails and phone calls. Crist once said he supported the bill, but now he's not sure.

"I don't know. I honestly don't know yet," Crist says. "One of the most important things a public servant can do is listen. God gave me two ears and one mouth. I'm going to listen this week."

The governor says he's concerned about how progress would be measured for special-needs students and in classes like band, plus what to do about students who chronically miss school. These details would be hashed out later. It's that uncertainty that educator Mulligan fears. But she says teachers will adjust.

"Actually, the people that are here, we'll do what we as teachers always do. So we'll make it work. But it would be nice to make it work in a positive atmosphere where you felt needed and loved, even," Mulligan says.

Crist says he'll make his decision this week. If he vetoes the bill, he'll become a folk hero to many teachers, who have promised to support him in his tough primary race for the U.S. Senate.

Crist has until Friday to sign, veto or let the bill become law without his signature.

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