Published: Mar 11, 2011 2:55 AM EST
Updated: Mar 10, 2011 11:57 PM EST

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A less rigid version of a bill that would begin merit pay for teachers and end tenure for new teachers is on a fast track to passage after it cleared the Florida Senate in a largely partisan vote on Thursday.

Just two days into the legislative session, the bill that was vetoed last year by former Gov. Charlie Crist is now headed for a floor vote in the House next week. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans and the legislation (SB 736) is strongly backed by new Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Its key features are a merit pay plan based heavily on how well each teacher's students improve on standardized tests starting in 2014 and a ban on tenure for teachers hired after July 1, 2011.

"This bill ought to be a teacher's dream to be able to get paid for student success," said Sen. Stephen Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and retired educator sponsoring the bill.

Democrats argued there was no evidence merit pay improves student performance and that the bill fails to pay for the salary enhancements or additional testing needed to make the salary plan work.

"I'm afraid it will collapse under its own weight because of the funding," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. Montford said that's why Florida's five prior merit pay plans failed.

Opposition hasn't been as vociferous as it was to last year's Senate Bill 6, which triggered widespread protests by teachers, parents and students. Crist vetoed that bill and then quit the Republican Party to run unsuccessfully as an independent for the U.S. Senate.

Teachers still aren't happy with the new version.

"This is just Senate Bill 6 with a smile," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union.

House passage is considered a foregone conclusion, but Ford said the union will keep seeking changes to make the bill more palatable.

That includes adding a due-process element to let teachers appeal poor evaluations that can lead to missing out on merit pay or outright dismissal. The union also wants to reduce the state Department of Education's power and give more authority for implementation to local school districts.

Evaluations would be based 50 percent on student performance over a three-year period with the rest based on principals' assessments and other factors including advanced degrees - but only if they are in the teacher's subject area.

The House has scheduled two marathon floor sessions on the legislation including one that could run through 1 a.m. next Thursday.

The Senate vote was 26-12. Only two Republicans, Sens. Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Dennis Jones of Seminole, voted against the bill. The only Democrat who voted for it was Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando.

After last year's veto, Florida won a $700 million federal Race to the Top stimulus grant for education improvement programs including merit pay. This year's bill largely mirrors the Race to the Top plan that was endorsed by all but two of the state's 67 school districts and 53 local teachers unions.

Democrats argued that requiring all districts to start merit pay is premature until results are in from an experimental plan in Hillsborough County being implemented with a $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said the state shouldn't be spending money on programs that don't have "a proven track record."

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bennett, replied that Florida does "have a proven track record, and the proven track record is that we're failing" because teachers haven't been held accountable.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston said the legislation was an unworkable attempt to run schools like a business.

"Teachers and students aren't just widgets coming off the assembly line," she said. "They're human beings who can't be and don't deserve to reduced to a single number on a piece of paper."

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)