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A proposed law for Florida seeks merit pay for teachers; major school districts nervous

 
 

Maureen Dinnen

By William Gjebre, BrowardBulldog.org    

Officials of teachers’ unions in Broward and Miami-Dade are wary of a newly filed bill that establishes teachers pay based on performance and places limitations on tenure. 

 “We are opposed to performance pay because it does not work,” said John Ristow, Communications Director for the Broward Teachers Union. He added it would be another unfunded mandate for school districts. Ristow also questioned the bill’s provision regarding tenure, saying “that’s objectionable.” 

The bill provides for one-year contracts for new teachers and stipulates that if a district has to choose which personnel to retain the primary consideration would be given to those teachers whose students made the greater learning gains. Generally, longevity is the prevailing consideration. 

The state Legislature, Ristow said, should concentrate on adequately funding public education.  

“We believe Florida needs to first address pay” for all teachers, as Florida is ranked 28 in the nation. “Address that and we are willing to discuss” performance pay, he added. 

The BTU website labeled SB 736, filed in the Senate last week, “Son of SB 6,” referencing last year’s performance pay measure opposed by teachers across the state. It was vetoed by then Governor Charlie Crist after House and Senate approval. 

“As it is, it is not acceptable,” Karen Aronowitz, President of the United Teachers of Dade, said of the bill introduced by Senator Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville and chairman of the Senate’s PreK-12 Education Committee. 

Wise could not be reached for comment despite several calls to his office. 

Aronowitz said state legislators should address “adequate base pay” for all teachers, instead. The Miami-Dade union chief said she is not pleased with the student performance measures in the bill, and she criticized a provision that calls for the hiring of new teachers under one-year annual contracts that can be terminated at the will of a local school board. 

The two  public school districts are amongst the largest in the nation. Dade, fourth largest with approximately 347,000 students and a budget of $4.3 billion, has a total of more than 45,000 employees,  including about 22,500 instructional personnel. Broward, sixth largest with approximately 257,000 students and a budget of $3.3 billion, has more than 36,000 employees, including 15,870 instructional personnel. 

The second coming of a performance pay proposal arrives as published reports indicate that newly elected  Gov. Rick Scott supports an education-changing program that includes reforming tenure and adding merit or performance pay.  Scott has enlisted former Washington D.C. public schools chief Michelle Rhee, a member of his Transition Team and currently his adviser on education matters. 

Rhee was the center of an education storm in the nation’s capital when she backed measures to significantly raise teacher pay in exchange for ending tenure rights. She pushed through partial performance pay reforms and fired more than 200 underperforming teachers, according to published reports. She stepped down last year when her main supporter, Mayor Adrian Fenty, failed to be re-elected. During Rhee’s tenure, however, tests scores increased significantly in D.C. schools. 

Martin Karp, a member of the School Board of Miami-Dade County, said he understands the concerns of the unions. And while he realizes that this year’s proposed state law  less objectionable than last year’s he said he has concerns. 

“I wonder if it will prevent us from focusing on other issues,” Karp said. 

He mentioned meeting requirements of the class size amendment; how to improve science education after reports the nation is behind other countries; and handling requirements that are unfunded. 

Martin Karp

“I think there are many unknowns” involving SB 736, he added. Karp said the bill would also create two different groups of teacher, those hired before and after the implementation period three years from now. “There will be two classes,” he added.  

Maureen Dinnen, a former teacher and member of the Broward School Board since 2004, said while there are some improvements in the current bill compared to last year’s version (it adds some credit for advanced degrees), she has numerous concerns. 

Foremost, she said, is the impact of the proposal on teachers. “What bothers is that teachers think” they are being targeted by the bill and “all the blame is on them” for perceived shortcomings, even though that was “not the intent of the lawmakers,” Dinnen said. Some teachers, she added, “would say this is another attack. Their morale is already low with budget cuts” resulting in no pay increases for several years, she said. 

Dinnen said she is concerned about the bill not recognizing a teacher’s experience and “that bothers me.” She added, “I personally support seniority rules.” The Broward board member said she has issues with the bill’s evaluation provisions and that they will be state-directed rather than determined by the local district. 

Dinnen said the bill would also allow a school district to dismiss a teacher any time during an annual contract, but if a teacher leaves without being released by the district he will be reported to the state’s Education Practices Committee. This would stay on the teacher’s record when seeking future employment opportunities, she added. “That gives me pause” because it seems unfair, Dinnen said. 

Under the bill, only “effective” teachers will be entitled to pay increases. It differs from last year’s proposal that would have permitted pay increases based primarily on student performance on standardized tests. 

The new bill allows for other factors to be taken into consideration in a teacher’s performance evaluation. 

The bill establishes four levels of teacher performance: Highly Effective; Effective; Needs Improvements; and Unsatisfactory.  Results of student test scores count for 50 percent of a classroom teacher’s evaluation and 30 percent  for non-classroom teachers.  The tests may include state and nationally recognized exams, industry-certified tests and district-developed or selected end-of-course assessments. 

Other factors in the evaluation, to be outlined by the state Commissioner of Education by June, 2011, may include a student’s prior performance, student attendance, student disciplinary record, student disabilities, and student English language proficiency. 

The bill stipulates that during an annual contract, dismissal for just cause includes two consecutive annual performance ratings of “unsatisfactory,” as well as immorality, misconduct in office, incompetency, gross insubordination, willful neglect of duty, or being convicted or found guilty of, or entering a plea of guilty to, regardless of adjudication of guilt, any crime involving moral turpitude. 

By July 1, 2014, school districts shall adopt a performance salary schedule based on provisions of the bill and employees hired on or after that date shall be compensated on that schedule. Employees hired prior to that date shall remain on previous salary schedules, which shall be grandfathered. However, the bill allows teachers hired before the effective date to switch from their current salary schedule to the performance pay plan. 

For a teacher rated “highly effective” under the bill, the pay increase must be greater than the highest salary adjustment for any employee on any other related salary schedule. The highest step increment on the United Teachers of Dade salary schedule is $10,000. 

For a teacher rated “effective” under the bill, the pay increase shall be at least 50 percent  but no higher than 75 percent of the increase given to a “highly effective” teacher. 

These increases, according to the bill, would become a permanent part of the employee’s annual salary. 

The bill also calls for additional compensation for teachers at Title I schools comprised of low income students, for teachers in critical shortage areas, and for those taking on additional academic responsibilities. 

Despite the concerns of union officials, a companion bill is expected to be introduced in the House soon.

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