Sunshine State News – March 17, 2011
The Legislature sent its first bill of the year to Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday, when the House joined the Senate in passing the hotly contested SB 736, a measure basing teacher pay on performance and assessments instead of seniority and tenure.
Flanked by legislative leaders at a press conference after the vote was taken, Scott praised the passage of the bill. “This will help attract and retain the best teachers,” said Scott, adding that it was part of his plan to increase jobs in the Sunshine State.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, thanked Sen. Steven Wise, R-Jacksonville, for sponsoring the bill.
“We’re creating an education system that will work for students,” said Haridopolos. “This is the future of Florida right in front of us, empowering teachers, empowering students.”
“It’s a refreshing change to have a governor celebrating the passage of the bill instead of vetoing it,” laughed Cannon, who praised both Democrats and Republicans in the House for a “philosophical debate.”
A similar measure, SB 6, passed both the House and the Senate last year but was vetoed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist after contentious debate and days of angry demonstrations from teachers and their unions throughout the state. While SB 6 passed the House at 2:26 a.m. April 9, 2010 by a 64-55 margin with 11 Republicans joining all 44 Democrats in voting against it, the vote Wednesday was nowhere near as close — 80 to 39 on a straight party-line vote.
With Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, taking questions on the measure for almost three hours Tuesday, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, insisted that Wednesday’s session be spent debating the measure.
“We had more than abundant time to ask questions,” said Cannon before the debate began. “There should be no questions during debate.”
Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St Augustine, the chairman of the Education Committee, and Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, served as floor managers during the six hour debate. Each side was allowed three hours, in fifteen minute blocks, to debate the bill. A procession of representatives spoke on the House floor, often drawing upon their own personal experiences and families to explain their positions either in favor of the measure or against it.
Fresen, the chairman of the K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee and the vice chairman of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, opened the debate for Republicans, calling for them to pass the bill. “This bill will move Florida forward,” he insisted, saying it would improve accountability for teachers.
Democratic Leader Ron Saunders of Key West opened for the other side. Invoking public union protests in Wisconsin, Saunders claimed that teachers opposed the measure and stood against the increased tests the proposal would mandate.
“This bill will divert millions of dollars from the classroom to pay for more tests that teachers do not feel are needed,” said Saunders.
Controlling only 39 of the 120 seats in the House, Democrats admitted right off the bat that they would lose the vote. That did not deter Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale, who spoke right after Saunders. “We will be heard on behalf of every teacher, student and parent in the state,” insisted Jenne.
Just as they had before the 2010 elections, in which they lost every single statewide race as well seats in Congress and the Legislature across the Sunshine State, the Democrats called for Floridians to pay attention to events and remember in November 2012.
“Today is the day this bill turns Florida into an educational wasteland,” said Rep. Franklin Sands, D-Weston, adding that it was a “day of infamy.”
“This bill is nothing more than an attack on public school teachers,” said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who attacked education policies backed by Republicans during their time in power in Tallahassee. “We must look at Florida’s educational system holistically and this son of SB 6 does not do that.”
“Florida has created an environment where it’s easier to remove a teacher than a student and that’s not right,” added Kriseman who called for more funding for public education.
Rep. Geri Thompson, D-Orlando, attacked the increased use of standardized tests, arguing that students will “regurgitate” whatever matter is on the test. “We are confusing testing with teaching,” she said, insisting “rote learning and repetition will kill creativity” and “parents are test weary.”
Republicans fired back, insisting that the system was broken and was not placing students first.
“It may be an attack on a broken system but it’s not an attack on teachers,” shot back Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, who brought up his experience in business. Davis stressed that ineffective teachers were touch to remove while award winning teachers were lost due to the “last hired, first fired” policy. “Does that makes any business sense? Absolutely not.”
“We all come to this chamber with the noble goal of improving the educational system in this state,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, who called for members to make a decision based on “logic and research.”
Adkins, the vice-chairwoman of the K-20 Competitiveness Subcommittee, cited research maintaining that a single inefficient teacher can severely impact students for years to come–making the bill even more important. She also cited that 13 other states passed similar legislation in 2010. While Adkins said that experienced teachers helped students, she maintained that student performance must be at the core of the education system. “There is no statistical evidence that seniority is a strong predictor of teacher effectiveness,” she said, attacking the current system for putting the needs of teachers above the needs of students.
Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Orange Park, who led Republicans who opposed SB 6 praised the new measure.
“It has a lot of the same direction, it has a lot of the same themes, but it’s different,” insisted Weinstein who pointed to more opportunities for local governments, teachers and unions to shape how it would impact their school districts. “The status quo is unacceptable,” said Weinstein.
One of the leading social conservatives in the House, Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Palatka, also joined Weinstein in opposing SB 6 but backing SB 736. Van Zant insisted that SB 6 allowed too much control of local school districts in the hands of Tallahassee and possibly the federal government but the new measure corrected that problem.
At least one of the House Democrats agreed with Weinstein and Van Zant that SB 736 was a better measure than SB 6. While she opposed SB 736 and was critical of the House rejecting Democratic sponsored amendments on Tuesday, Rep. Michele Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said, “This bill is better than SB 6” and said teacher unions could claim a small victory as opposed to last year’s legislation. “It’s not done yet,” she insisted, hoping that teachers will continue to play a role in shaping the measure.
Incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, noticed the change between SB 6 and SB 736 and touched on that in his remarks on Wednesday. “The rhetoric was a little thicker, the tone was a little harsher,” said Weatherford as he mulled over the SB 6 fight. “Over the last year there was an effort by members in this chamber, both Republican and Democrat, to make this bill better.
“Last year they said we rushed the bill through and we probably did,” he added. “Last year, they said we didn’t listen to teachers and we probably didn’t.”
“We learned and we listened,” insisted Weatherford who said that keeping the status quo in education would severely damage Florida’s future.
Rep. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, who has served more than decade as a teacher, closed the debate for Democrats after 30 of his colleagues spoke against the bill. Bullard admitted defeat but said he was thankful for his caucus colleagues for joining him in the fight. Continuing the personal tone of the remarks, Bullard then thanked every teacher that he had who, he said, helped students learn before the state government called for reform.
After more than 20 of his Republican colleagues spoke, Fresen closed the debate. “This is a footprint in the sand moment,” said Fresen. “You will regret this twenty years from now if you don’t vote for this bill.”
Republicans weighed in on the issue after the measure passed.
“This is a momentous occasion for our state’s education system,” said Fresen. “Excellent teachers are the driving force behind student success and this bill provides for a system that recognizes those highly effective educators and rewards them appropriately.”
“By grounding teacher pay raises in fair and meaningful performance evaluations rather than the time they have spent in the profession, we are providing our best and brightest teachers with an incentive to remain in the classroom and continue to deliver a quality education to our state’s children,” continued Fresen.
“By passing this legislation we have effectively shifted our focus toward an evaluation system that is based on student learning growth,” said Proctor. “This is a significantly important change in our system that will serve to better prepare our state’s children for a successful educational career.”
House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, praised the legislation.
“I am proud the Florida House is committed to excellence in education and has worked diligently to pass this significant piece of legislation. This bill is about giving every child in every community the chance at a better future. It’s about giving every child the opportunity to succeed,” said Lopez-Cantera. “Most of our teachers work tirelessly to provide a quality education environment for our students – teachers who go above and beyond the call of duty. These teachers deserve higher salaries for a job well done. What we ask in return is to see that our children are improving, to see that they make continual progress. Our children deserve better than the status quo.
“In a land of great economic opportunity, where hard work and ingenuity allow anyone to succeed regardless of circumstance, it is unfathomable that we would leave our children’s opportunity for a better future to random chance rather than measured excellence,” added Lopez-Cantera. “This legislation properly rewards those successful teachers and keeps them in the classrooms with students who need them the most. I look forward to seeing Governor Scott sign this vital piece of education reform into law.”
Leaders from the business community cheered the news when it was passed.
“Education is in the midst of a transformation,” said Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) . “Chalkboards have long since given way to SMART Boards. Textbooks have gone digital. Students are no longer bound by a physical classroom to learn. And, our high school and university graduates aren’t just competing with their neighbors for jobs, but with their peers from halfway across the globe.
“As learning environments and methods used to educate our students evolve, so should the way in which we evaluate our teachers and school administrators,” continued Bishop. “Given that we are living and working in a knowledge-based, global economy, it is critical that student outcomes are at least a portion of educators’ performance appraisals.”
“With this new approach to measuring teachers’ success, Florida continues to be on the cutting-edge of education reform,” added Bishop.
“Today, lawmakers demonstrated leadership and courage, as well as a commitment to abandon the status quo, by passing SB 736. This is a big win for Florida’s future and a bigger win for Florida’s teachers and students,” said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce. “Despite years of successful education reform and positive trends, Florida continues to face an unmet need for a highly skilled workforce. Florida’s future economy is one that will be driven by innovation, and the prospect of high-wage, knowledge-based in emerging industries. The passage of SB 736 will build on the education reforms of the past and help move Florida toward creating a world-class talent supply chain.”