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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Florida Education Board members quitting one after another

From the Palm Beach Post

by Dara Kam

TALLAHASSEE — As Gov. Rick Scott signed his first bill into law Thursday, the state department responsible for making the teacher merit-pay plan work was in apparent disarray.

T. Willard Fair, chairman of the state Board of Education, resigned Wednesday over Scott's handling of the resignation of Education Commissioner Eric Smith, who announced Monday that he is stepping down.

Smith heads the state Department of Education, which under the new merit-pay law is responsible for crafting the details of how to tie teacher performance to student tests - a task made all the more difficult by the fact that it has no established model to build on. Florida is the first state to do away with teacher tenure.

Fair accused Scott of usurping the education board's authority by forcing Smith to resign. In a Wednesday letter to other board members, Fair, first appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, said he was "alarmed by the governor's dismissive treatment of this board, which after all, hired Eric Smith, but which was not consulted, regarding the governor's desire to divest the state of his services."

The board's seven members, appointed by governors to staggered four-year terms, have the power to hire and fire the education commissioner.

Scott moved quickly to mend fences Thursday, calling each of the remaining five members. It was the first time he had spoken to several of them during his three months in office.

"I'd never spoken to Gov. Scott before," said Roberto Martinez, also appointed by Bush. "It was greatly appreciated."

Fair's resignation "got the governor's attention and emphasized the independence of the board to make the selection," Martinez said.

The board also held an emergency meeting by phone Thursday to jump-start the process of replacing Smith, whose last day is June 10, by approving a nationwide search for a successor.

Even with Smith remaining, sources said the department will be in transition until early August, the deadline the board has set for hiring Smith's successor.

That's also when public school teachers in much of the state will be starting the new school year with portions of the new law in place. And though the evaluation part of the law won't go into effect until 2014, the department must begin crafting rules long before that.

The department must develop a "value-added" system to judge teacher quality with test-score data but take into account factors outside a teacher's control, such as a student's absentee rate. That work is under way as part of Florida's Race to the Top program, funded with a $700 million federal grant.

A recent study found that fewer than 500 school districts out of 14,000 nationwide have implemented teacher merit-pay plans, none of them statewide. According to the study, conducted by the National Center on Performance Initiatives, "most were so weak that they represented no meaningful change from traditional compensation systems."

The education board's job is to create the blueprint for the state's education standards, including high school graduation requirements and school grades. The board pushed lawmakers to adopt the merit-pay plan.

"We have the responsibility to ensure that 2.7 million children in the state of Florida get an education that allows them to be competitive with the rest of the world," Fair said Thursday.

He also said he doesn't object to Scott making his mark on the board, as other governors have done, but he "did not appreciate the way he went about" Smith's removal and believes the national search approved by the board will be a waste of time.

Scott has three appointments to make to the board. In addition to Fair's resignation Wednesday, Susan Story resigned last year. A.K. Desai, appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, is still on the panel, but his term expired in December.

During Thursday's meeting, Kathleen Shanahan, another Bush holdover who also served on Scott's transition team, said she believes Scott's selections are imminent.

But Scott could wait until the legislative session ends in early May to fill the three vacancies and avoid Senate confirmation of his picks until next year. That would allow his appointees to serve until the legislature meets in 2012.

Scott will "make the appointments known when the governor is ready to announce them," his staff said in an e-mail.

Voters revamped the Florida Department of Education with a constitutional amendment in 2002, replacing the elected education commissioner with one appointed by the Board of Education.

The intent of the reshuffling was to take some of the politics out of the department, said Vern Pickup-Crawford, a lobbyist for the Palm Beach County School District.

But board members acknowledge their positions are as political as they are policy-oriented.

Martinez cautioned, though, that Scott shouldn't expect a rubber stamp from the board.

"At the end of the day, we're talking about a political process. People elected a governor and the governor nominated me," Martinez said. "You can't distance the political process from education. But it's not a dictatorship of the Board of Education. It's not an insulated oligarchy."

Staff writer Jason Schultz contributed to this story.

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