Crist veto a victory for teachers against merit-based pay

But many education reformers see the Crist veto in Florida as just a temporary setback in their quest to improve teaching and teacher compensation.

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    Florida teachers were up in arms about a bill that would've tied teacher pay to student achievement. The Charlie Crist veto of the bill Thursday was seen as a major victory. Here, Gov. Crist talks with teachers about the bill in Tallahassee on Tuesday.
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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) on Thursday vetoed a bill that would have radically altered teacher tenure and compensation systems throughout the state.

Teachers’ unions and school boards mounted a vigorous campaign to stop the bill, alarmed at how it would have removed tenure possibilities for new teachers and based evaluations largely on student academic gains. With the Crist veto, they won the day. But many education reformers see the veto as just a temporary setback in a march toward breaking down the status quo and ultimately improving the teaching profession.

“We’re seeing ... more movement than we have in decades in education reform – particularly around [rewarding] great teachers and leaders,” says Ellen Winn, director of the Education Equality Project, a national coalition that advocates for closing achievement gaps. The Florida bill wasn’t perfect, she says, but it was groundbreaking as a statewide attempt to reward teachers for boosting their students’ skills.

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Several school districts around the country have experimented in recent years with tying teacher pay to student academic growth. President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have also used federal grants to promote the idea – raising concerns that too many good teachers are driven out of the profession because they aren’t rewarded for the great strides their students make. But they’ve been careful to emphasize that performance pay systems are complex, and need to be developed in cooperation with teachers, not imposed on them.

Research shows that “involving key stakeholders in any pay-for-performance effort is vital to future success,” says Susan Freeman Burns, program manager at the National Center on Performance Incentives in Nashville, Tenn.

The bill in Florida had “zero input from teachers, administrators, and school boards ... [and] it would eviscerate local control of schools by putting teacher salary schedules and evaluations in the hands of the state,” says Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, a union representing more than half the teachers in the state.

In 12 years of contentious battles between Republican political leaders and the teachers unions, Mr. Pudlow says, “nothing approaches the kind of reaction we’ve seen to this bill.” Opponents rallied, sent petitions, wrote thousands of emails, campaigned on Twitter and Facebook, and even made overnight road trips to Crist’s office to test his promise to listen to their input.

The governor’s office had tallied nearly 58,000 opposition calls and emails and about 2,600 contacts from supporters, but still had nearly 50,000 untallied communications about the bill when contacted Thursday morning.

In announcing the veto Thursday, the governor expressed concerns at how quickly the bill passed the legislature, without sufficient public input. "This bill has negatively affected the morale of our parents, teachers and students,'' he said.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce supported the bill as part of a 10-year effort to better prepare Florida students for a global economy, says president Mark Wilson. This bill got further than previous attempts in the state to establish merit pay for teachers, he says, “and we’ll continue [the effort] until it’s signed and in law in Florida.”

What union opponents don’t highlight, he says, is how the bill would attract great teachers into low-performing schools by offering to pay them bonuses and higher salaries for moving struggling students forward.

The veto won’t be the last chapter in the debate, Pudlow acknowledges. “We do understand there’s growing popularity for [merit pay plans] ... but we just want to be sure that it works best for students and it works best for teachers.”

Perhaps one model both sides will turn to is Florida’s Hillsborough County, where district leaders and unions have collaborated on a pay-for-performance system that can increase teachers’ pay by 50 percent and where teachers are measured for their “value added” impact on student academics. Their multiyear efforts in this direction won the district a $100 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Florida bill would have exempted the district so it could continue on its current path.

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