TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A couple hotly debated education issues may be heading to Gov. Charlie Crist while a third likely is going to voters.
The Republican-controlled Florida House is set to vote on the three Senate-passed measures that have strong GOP backing. Crist, though, has been wavering in his support for a bill (SB 6) making it easier to fire teachers and linking their pay to student test scores.
House approval also was expected on a proposed state constitutional amendment (SJR 2) to loosen class size limits and a bill (SB 2126) expanding a private school voucher program. Crist is a longtime voucher supporter and has not expressed reservations about that bill. The amendment would go directly to the November ballot.
Business interests and most Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature support the measures, which also have backing from former Gov. Jeb Bush. He made overhauling education a priority in his administration and created a foundation that still lobbies for his policies.
Bush spoke earlier Wednesday about the heated opposition the teacher bill has drawn in an interview on the Morning in America radio program hosted by Bill Bennett, education secretary to President Ronald Reagan.
"Teacher performance would be measured on student learning, which is apparently a radical idea," Bush said. "It's not radical at all. I think it's commonsensical." Gov. Charlie Crist, meanwhile, wavered Wednesday from previously expressed support for the teacher pay and tenure bill.
The Republican governor said he still agrees with parts of the bill but it's been weighing heavily on him since he recently spoke with a friend who questioned how progress by his special needs child could be tested. "Shame on any public servant that doesn't listen to the people," Crist said.
The Senate already has passed all three pieces of legislation over opposition from most Democrats and the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. That opposition also has moved into the political arena. A group called No Tallahassee Takeover has been airing TV and radio ads while sending out mailers attacking Senate President Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican running for chief financial officer, for his support of the teacher bill.
The bills would go to Crist, but he has no say on the proposed class size amendment to the Florida Constitution. It will go directly to the ballot if it gets a three-fifths vote in the House. Similar proposals have been approved there before only to fail in the Senate. Advocates say the teacher bill would improve schools by attracting and retaining the best teachers through merit pay while making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.
Opponents, who have flooded the Capitol with phone calls and e-mail, argue it would have the opposite effect because it targets all teachers, not just bad ones. Teachers and school administrators would get merit raises according to evaluations based at least half on how much their students have improved on standardized tests over three years. Advanced degrees could be considered in those evaluations but neither that factor nor experience could be used to set pay scales.
The evaluations also would help determine if a teacher should be recertified. Teachers hired after July 1 would be unable to get more than a one-year contract. Most local school officials also oppose the bill but support rolling back class size limits. Critics say the limits are costly - diverting dollars from other needs such as teacher pay raises - and overly rigid. Voters in 2002 passed an amendment placed on the ballot through a petition drive that calls for no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade, 22 in fourth through eighth grade and 25 in high school effective this fall.
"We will have rezoning," said Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican sponsoring the class size revision in the House. "It will increase busing." Weatherford's proposal would set the same limits but on an average basis at each school rather than for each classroom. Individual classes, though, would be capped at three students above the average in kindergarten through third grade and five in the higher grades.
The school average limits already are in effect under a phase-in plan that's cost the state $16 billion so far. Adoption of the new amendment, which would be retroactive to the start of the school year, in November would mean no change to what's now being done. Opponents argue smaller classes mean better learning. They also say the Legislature could pass a law giving school officials the flexibility they've been seeking without amending the constitution.