TALLAHASSEE (AP) _ Gov. Charlie Crist says no other issue has put as much political pressure on him during his more than three years in office as a bill that would make it easier to fire Florida teachers and tie their pay to student test scores.
How much pressure?
“A ton. A ton,'' Crist said Friday, April 9 while visiting a state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission office in St. Petersburg, his hometown. Crist has backed off from his earlier support of the bill, and he now says he's unsure whether he'll sign or veto it.
Teachers are upset over the legislation (SB 6). They've been holding demonstrations across the state and flooding the Capitol with phone calls and e-mail urging Crist to veto the bill.
The Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union, and local school officials also oppose the bill. It is supported by business interests and most Republican politicians including former Gov. Jeb Bush, still an influential force in Florida politics.
Crist also is getting lobbied from within his family.
“My dad used to be chairman of the school board,'' said Crist, who was once the state's education commissioner. “Two of my three sisters have been public school teachers here in Pinellas County. I am hearing a lot about it everywhere. They're making very good suggestions from the heart.''
The Florida House, controlled by Crist's fellow Republicans, sent him the legislation at 2:26 a.m. Friday on a largely party-line 64-55 vote. All Democrats and 11 Republicans voted against it. The roll call came after more than eight hours of often passionate debate that began Thursday evening, although opponents acknowledged from the start they didn't have the votes to stop it.
The governor's office had received 10,247 phone calls opposing the bill to only 71 in favor through Friday. E-mails from organized campaigns were 3,107 against to 279 for and individual e-mail 15,454 against to only 66 in favor with 9,000 e-mails not yet read.
A veto would put him on a collision course with his own party's leaders including the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, who also serves as Florida Republican Party chairman, and Bush who has heavily lobbied the bill through his Foundation for Florida's Future.
Crist, who polls show is trailing former House Speaker Marco Rubio in their GOP primary race for the U.S. Senate nomination, has five days to decide and plans to use every one of them.
“I think it's too important to do anything hasty,'' Crist said.
Thrasher, meanwhile, says he's willing to consider changes to satisfy Crist by passing follow-up legislation. The governor said he hasn't yet been approached with that idea but was “keeping an open mind.''
The House rejected repeated attempts to make such changes in Thrasher's bill. That would have sent it back to the Senate, where it passed by a narrow 21-17 margin before many of the protests were held, for another vote.
“There's always an option for what some might call a glitch bill, some might call a reconciliation bill _ it's getting to be popular term _ to fix some issues that are out there in respect to implementation, not in respect to the overall policy,'' said Thrasher of St. Augustine.
That policy, which conservative academics and politicians call transformative, would do away with tenure for newly hired teachers and require school districts to establish merit pay plans for teachers and administrators.
Performance evaluations based on how much improvement their students have shown on standardized tests would be used to determine who would get merit raises. Poor evaluations, though, could cost teachers their jobs through denial of recertification.
Crist specifically has questioned how the progress of special needs children could be assessed.
School districts also would be prohibited from using experience and advanced degrees as factors in setting pay scales, now a common practice, although degrees could be considered in the evaluations.
The bill annually would set aside 5 percent of each district's classroom spending _ about $900 million statewide _ to cover merit pay, test development and other related expenses. Districts that fail to comply with the bill would lose that money.
Advocates say the legislation will help attract and retain better teachers with pay raises while weeding out the bad ones. Merit pay is something that's been tried before in Florida and other states.
Opponents say the tenure and recertification provisions are unprecedented anywhere in the nation. They argue the lack of job security and testing that can be skewed by outside factors such as students' home life could discourage good teachers from working in Florida.
Associated Press Writer Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.
Pictured above is Gov. Charlie Crist.