Accelify Blog

Crist Says He Is Unsure What To Do With Education Bill

April 12, 2010

Gov. Charlie Crist is now at the center of the political firestorm over a contentious education bill that the Florida House voted early Friday to send him for approval.

Whether Crist will sign SB 6, the so-called teacher tenure bill, is anything but certain. While supportive earlier in the session, the governor said this week that he cannot ignore the loud outcry from teachers and some parents. Thursday, the governor repeated his concerns about the proposal and refused to say whether he would veto it.

This morning, appearing at the dedication of Mosaic’s new Florida headquarters in Hillsborough County, he remained noncommital. Crist said he has gotten a lot of feedback from people across the state concerned about the measure.

"I’m hearing from a lot of people," the governor said. "Teachers, obviously, parents, students and I continue to listen to what they have to say about it."

Crist said that he does have some concerns about some of the aspects of the bill.

"I’m concerned about the fact that if you have special-needs children, how they’re going to be evaluated in the teacher evaluation an d how it relates to that,” he said. "Just basic equity and fairness, I guess, is the best way to put it and I want to continue to study the bill now that it’s in its final, final form."

Asked if he was worried he could lose teacher support if he signs it, Crist said, "Well, it’s not a factor in my mind. I just want to do what’s right for the people of Florida and our children."

The bill, which passed 64-55 after more than eight hours of debate that spilled into the early hours of Friday morning, would replace traditional tenure for K-12 teachers hired after July 1 with annual contracts, making it easier to fire those with experience. Pay raises would hinge largely on students’ test performances.

Rep. Paige Kreegel argued that tenure is job security without accountability. The only people complaining about its elimination, he said, are reaping its benefits.

"Tenure means never having to say you’re sorry," said Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda. "Ninety-nine percent of our voters, our constituents, our taxpayers – they don’t have anything like tenure."

The bill includes a unique exception for Hillsborough County, allowing it to keep its tenure system.

House and Senate sponsors agreed to exempt the county to avoid interfering with its $100 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to incorporate related reforms without abolishing multiyear contracts.

The House began debating SB 6 after passing several other significant education bills, including one that would freeze implementation of constitutional class-size limits.

That bill, which Crist supports and is expected to sign, will ask voters in November to allow schools to continue complying with class-size limits by meeting schoolwide averages.

The bill sets aside no new money to help school districts implement potentially expensive components, such as new end-of-course exams. Districts other than Hillsborough also would be required to set aside 5 percent of their funding for performance pay. That mandate, Democrats argue, effectively cuts salaries for some teachers to create raises for others.

Higher standards

Higher statewide standards would make it harder for teachers in all counties, including Hillsborough, to renew their teaching certificates. To stay in the profession, they would have to show they were "effective" or "highly effective" for four of the last five years, based on students’ demonstrated learning gains.

From almost the moment the bill was introduced, teachers unions have lambasted it as punitive and a disincentive to enter the profession.

Many also have attacked it as a thinly veiled effort by conservatives to undermine the teachers union, historically an ally of Democrats. The Senate sponsor of the measure, John Thrasher of Jacksonville, heads the Republican Party of Florida.

While teachers deluged lawmakers and the governor with messages of protest, business and other conservative groups fought back with their own political ads and lobbying efforts.

Supporters say the reforms are crucial to improving classroom instruction and readying Florida’s youth for the global job market. Good teachers would make more money more quickly, while districts could jettison those deemed ineffective, they argue.

Among those pressing the bill: former Gov. Jeb Bush and his conservative Foundation for Florida’s Future. Earlier this week, his organization launched a television ad campaign promoting the bill. It stressed potential benefits for "Florida’s neediest students – the poor, the disabled, those in broken homes" and the teachers who go the extra mile to help them.

Crist still undecided

Asked about the bill on Thursday, Crist said he was undecided and planned to listen to the House debate. He said he also was "listening to the people of Florida, my boss."

Some Democrats responded by all but addressing the governor during floor debate.

Ron Saunders of Key West argued that Crist’s political mentor, the former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, likely would reject the bill because, according to Saunders, it fails Mack’s litmus test of "less taxes, less government, more freedom."

Politically, the bill places Crist in a delicate spot. The governor has long portrayed himself as a populist servant of his constituents. But if he vetoes the bill, he does so over the objections of his party chairman, as well as Bush – one of Florida’s most influential Republicans.

Crist is in a tight Republican primary race for the U.S. Senate against conservative former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who is now polling better than Crist and raised more money last quarter.

Bush has not yet endorsed a candidate, though it has been widely speculated he will back Rubio. Crist, meanwhile, was fending off rumors Thursday he might abandon the tight primary to run as an independent.

Among the concerns Crist has rai sed about SB 6: how teachers of students with developmental disabilities would be evaluated when their students may not make easily measured "learning gains."

Thrasher said Thursday that concern is unfounded. He said students with special needs do make such gains, and there are diagnostic tools to measure it.

"I have a special needs grandson; he has Down syndrome and he is in mainstream kindergarten this year," the GOP chairman said. "And I promise you he’s learned."

‘Reconciliation’ bill

Thrasher said Crist told him repeatedly this session that he would sign the bill. Amid reports the governor’s support was wavering, however, the senator said he might file a "reconciliation" or "glitch" bill to iron out some concerns.

But Thrasher made clear he is talking only about a bill that would "clarify" how SB 6 would take effect. That could include additional detail about evaluating teachers of students with special needs, he said.

But he is not backing down from the core policies of his teacher tenure bill, he said, and does not expect a reconciliation bill to change Crist’s mind.