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Thursday, January 27, 2011

What is going on with merit pay?

From the Orland Sentinel

by Leslie Postal

Crafting a teacher merit-pay bill for Florida this spring is "not going to be like last time," a key state lawmaker promised today.

State Sen. Steve Wise, whose education committee will devise a bill to be considered by the Florida Legislature, said he does not want a repeat of last year's fierce fight.

"We are going to have input, and we're going to have serious discussion, and it's not going to be like last time," said the Jacksonville Republican today at a Senate education committee meeting.

Wise, who is the committee chairman, said that in tackling what was one of the most divisive issues of the legislature's 2010 session, his committee will devise a "thoughtful" bill that aims to boost teacher quality by changing how teachers are evaluated and paid.

The committee this morning heard from five Florida school superintendents, two teachers union leaders and two advocacy groups. Orange Superintendent Ron Blocker was to be among those sharing his thoughts, but his flight to Tallahassee on Tuesday night was cancelled because of stormy weather.

Friday, the committee is hosting a six-hour workshop in Tallahassee so the public can give testimony on the controversial topic.

"What a difference a year makes. I want to thank you for the openness," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, speaking at this morning's meeting.

Last year, the Legislature adopted a sweeping merit-pay bill that would have scrapped traditional teacher pay plans in favor of a system that tied their compensation mostly to student performance on standardized tests.

The statewide teachers union called the bill "radical legislation" and decried the way it was created.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, whose office was bombarded with letters and calls in opposition to Senate Bill 6, vetoed the legislation in April, calling it "significantly flawed" and complaining it had "sped through" the legislature with little time for input from educators.

Bay Superintendent Bill Husfelt told the committee that "Senate Bill 6 has put a fear in the heart of teachers."

Husfelt urged the committee to devise a new bill that followed the plans districts agreed to when they signed onto the state's Race to the Top grant application. Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith has previously made the same recommendation to Wise's committee.

Florida won $700 million in the federal grant competition in part by agreeing to devise merit pay plans. But those plans give each district more leeway to set up their own systems and, while they must use data from student tests scores, they do not rely on them as heavily as was outlined in the vetoed bill.

"If whatever you come up with doesn't very closely mirror Race to the Top, there's going to be a lot of crying and bickering and fighting," Husfelt added, noting that districts and their teachers unions are already working together on those plans.

Pasco Superintendent Heather Fiorentino urged lawmakers to be mindful that any new legislation that cost money might be hard to implement in a year when education budget cuts loom.

"Last time we saw a bill like this it was, 'Take additional money out of what you already have'," she said.

That will be tough when "everyone is short, and we all have to live within our means," she added.

A House education subcommittee, which would likely consider the House version of any merit-pay bill, is meeting this afternoon to also hear testimony on "instructional quality."

Leslie Postal can be reached at or 407-420-5273.,0,6284635.story

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