While teachers and other activists protested Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s actions vigorously and loudly in Madison in recent weeks, Florida’s newly elected governor, Republican Rick Scott, and the Republican-dominated Florida Legislature quietly ushered through precedent-shattering and radical new legislation which will dramatically change the rules under which that state’s teachers will work.
Florida Senate Bill 736 was signed into law by Governor Scott yesterday. It became the first new law Scott has enacted in his governorship, and it is already drawing the ire of teacher union officials, both within Florida and at the national level.
Predictably, the bill, which eliminates tenure for new hires, establishes merit pay and mandates teacher effectiveness evaluations based on student test scores, is being roundly criticized by union stalwarts such as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten, who said in a statement, “Scott and his allies have rammed through legislation that will undermine Florida’s students and their public schools.It silences teachers, who are closest to our kids in the classroom; imposes compensation and evaluation systems that have failed to advance learning when tried elsewhere.”
Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association (FEA) added, “There’s just so many problems with it. It’s a terribly unfunded mandate.” Pudlow added that the FEA has not yet decided whether it will challenge the new bill in court, “We’re looking at all the options right now,” he said.
Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of the Washington, D.C. school district, where she became the focal point of a storm of controversy generated by her firing of 241 under-performing teachers and placing 737 more on probation for a year, said of the new Florida law, “This landmark bill recognizes that teachers are the most important factor in schools when determining a child’s success,” Rhee founded and now runs a national child educational advocacy group called StudentsFirst. Rhee was featured prominently in the hard-hitting documentary, Waiting for “Superman” last year, and was among Governor Scott’s first hires (as a consultant on education) upon taking office.
Florida Senate Bill 736 was first introduced two years ago, and had been slowly wending its way through the legislative process since. An education foundation lead by former governor Jeb Bush presented the first iteration of it in 2009, and the second instance of the bill was later vetoed by former governor Charlie Crist. Some observers credit that veto as being instrumental in Crist’s losing his bid for a second term to Rick Scott, a newcomer to politics.
By contrast, upon taking office, Scott moved quickly to get the bill passed and promptly signed it, saying in a prepared statement, “I am proud that the first bill I sign is this important legislation that will give Florida the best-educated work force to compete in the 21st century economy. We must recruit and retain the best people to make sure every classroom in Florida has a highly effective teacher.’’
Scott, a proponent of charter schools, signed the bill at Jacksonville’s KIPP Middle School, which is run by the Knowledge Is Power Program, a national charter school organization.
The Associated Press notes in a report that, “The GOP-controlled Legislature put the bill on a fast track and passed it just a week after this year’s regular legislative session began. It passed the House on a party-line vote and the Senate with just one Democrat in favor and only two Republicans against.
According to The Miami Herald, “…the new law is one of the most far-reaching of its kind in the nation and one of the biggest shakeups in the history of Florida public schools.”
Senate 736 allows for a three year implementation period for some of its most controversial aspects, including the new pay scales. This will allow the state to devise solutions to problems arising as a result of Senate Bill 736, and it also allows individual school districts to delay the start of the new pay rules if they don’t have money available.
Florida, often scornfully described by wits as “God’s waiting room” because of its large population of retirees, has once again defied the pundits, this time moving to the forefront of the national battle to improve America’s education system.